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Name: Jake
Status: student
Age: N/A
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Question:
Can bacteria eat radioactive waste?



Replies:
Dear Jake,

Yes. Radioactive waste is a material like any other, except that some of the nuclei are radioactive. If a bacterium ingests a radionuclide, it does not change the level of radioactivity -- only its chemical form. Having bacteria eat radioactive contamination might be a useful technique, but its purpose would be to dislodge the material so it could be concentrated and placed in some sort of storage system.

It is worth pointing out that the biosphere contains lots of natural radioactive material, including our food supply, so we eat radioactive material every day in very small quantities. This is nothing to worry about -- humankind has been eating radioactive foods since Day 1.

Roger Blomquist, PhD
Nuclear Engineer
Argonne National Laboratory


Dear Jake,

Thanks for your question. Most bacteria die quickly when exposed to radiation at the levels normally found in any radioactive waste. However, there are several types for which this is not the case. Deinococus radiodurans is a highly radioresistant bacterium which can be used to precipitate out uranium from radioactive waste, as well as to detoxify mercury and toluene in radioactive waste. Work is ongoing to better understand how this bacterium and similar bacteria (such as some species of Rubrobacter) protect themselves against high radiation doses and how to modify them to remove specific components on a large scale from radioactive waste and groundwater contaminated with radioactive materials.

You can learn more about these bacteria and their history from the following links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans, “Deinococcus radiodurans”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1694275/, “Engineering of Deinococcus radiodurans R1 for Bioprecipitation of Uranium from Dilute Nuclear Waste”

http://www.usuhs.mil/pat/deinococcus/FrontPage_DR_Web_work/Pages/Deinococcus%20Macia%20Stone%202009.pdf , “Metal Balance Helps Explain Survival of Microbial ‘Superhero’”, Microbe, Vol. 4, Number 4, pp. 164-5, 2009.

If you have any further questions, please contact neoutreach@anl.gov.

Sincerely,

Dr. Laural Briggs
Nuclear Engineering Division, Argonne National Laboratory


Hi Jake!

I Googled "Radiation Waste Eating Bacteria" and found the following:

http://salon.glenrose.net/default.asp?view=plink&id=4790

This was dated in 2007 and says that this a future possible answer.

This site says that this bacterium turns soluble uranium (uranium that dissolves into water) into solid form. It does not say that it renders the uranium inert.

http://www.eyeofscience.com/eos2/english/gallery/bakvir/bsp5.html

This article is the most promising, but it is full of the words "could" "might be able to"

http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2009-09/bacterial-breakthrough-renders -radioactive-metals-inert

If there were a known bacteria that ate radioactive waste, we would know about it because electric companies would be all over it to solve one of our major problems.

So I guess the absolute answer is that we haven't found that bacteria yet. Maybe you can find it if you become a biology researcher.

Sincere regards,

Mike Stewart



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