Here I want to talk about one of the good things about genetic engineering: using it to clean up the environment. I’ve already written about the benefits of genetic engineering in medicine and agriculture; let’s turn to the good things about genetic engineering regarding the environment. We can use bacteria as nature’s recyclers. Bacteria thrive on all sorts of nutrients, including things that we refer to as waste. There are species of bacteria that have the genetic capacity to produce enzymes that humans don’t. Composting uses bacteria to break down the carbon rich stores such as cellulose, which are the indigestible parts of wood chips, paper or straw. Also, they break down nitrogen rich sources, such as protein wastes and coffee grounds. When the bacteria work on these things, they produce four things: carbon dioxide, water, heat and humus.
Waste water treatment uses bacteria to act on human waste, paper products and household chemicals. The liquids and solids are treated differently. There is one group of bacteria that digest harmful substances in the solids of our wastes. Some of these bacteria, by the way, make a gas called methane as a byproduct, which is used for energy. Liquid wastes are digested by other bacteria. There is a whole series of bacteria that will digest different substances that are in things we call waste.
We’re still discovering more efficient and better ways to use bacteria for our purposes. This is called bioremediation.
Bacteria and plants have or can be given genes that remove pollutants. In addition to being nature’s recyclers, bacteria break down many human-made pollutants. How do we know this? We take soil with water, and we take that pollutant, oil for example. Then we look and see whether any of it gets broken down. We grow up the bacteria that thrive on the pollutant and use it.
In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground near the Alaskan shore, releasing 11 million gallons of crude oil over a thousand miles of shoreline. This was an environmental disaster of major proportions. Cleanup by physical methods was used first and the result was a dispersion of two thirds of the oil. Genetically engineered bacteria did the rest by bioremediation. Genetic strains of bacteria that can eat up oil were used. This process is ongoing.
The government of Kuwait is using bioremediation to try to clean up 150 million gallons of oil that was spilled probably deliberately by exploding oil wells during the Gulf War of 1991. This is probably the largest single remediation project in the world, and it is going on as I write. This is maybe one of the most useful of the good things about genetic engineering.
Good Things About Genetic Engineering? Environmental Cleanup
There is a type of bacteria called extremophiles. They have many genes that are useful in bioremediation. Extremophiles are bacteria that love the extremes of nature. They are kind of the ultimate athletes of the biological world. They can live in very hot places or icy places like Antarctica, or deep in the ocean, or very salty environments like the Dead Sea. These organisms form a separate group from bacteria called the archaea. They are called archaea because they resemble the organisms that are believed were the first living cells.
The archaea genomes have been sequenced and half of the genes of the archaea do not resemble anything in any types of bacteria or eukaryotes. Some of them have genes that use carbon dioxide, just like plants do, not to make sugars but to make methane gas. Archaea are by far the major producers of this gas.
The granddaddy of all archaea is called Deinococcus radiodurans. This organism lives in probably the most dangerous environment on Earth: ones with extremely high levels of radiation. Normally, radiation kills cells by damaging DNA. When DNA in any cell is damaged by radiation, we can repair it thanks to a system that we have. Large amounts of radiation, however, overwhelm that, and you get permanent mutations and cancers as a result.
Deinococcus radiodurans gets around this by having the most efficient and sensitive radiation repair system in nature. It is a phenomenally good system. This wonderful organism is responsible by one of the good things about genetic engineering. Genes from other extremophiles are being engineered into Deinococcus radiodurans. People call this new organism Conan the Bacterium. It is used to clean up the most toxic sites we know of. For example, in America there are sites extremely contaminated with extremely bad stuff. These Deinococcus radiodurans are being used there.
Plants can be genetically engineered for environmental cleanup. For instance, bacterial genes that allow environmental cleanup can be put into transgenic plants to break down oil. There are plants that would convert solid mercury into harmless substances. They might ask why use plants when microbes are available. The issue is that you want to get the microbe out of the soil when you don’t need it anymore. You don’t want extra microbes. Getting bacteria out of the soil is quite difficult. Plants are easy to take out. You plant it, it does its thing, and you take it out. This might be a better way of doing bioremediation in some cases.