Bioremediation can be defined as any process that uses microorganisms, fungi, green plants or their enzymes to return the natural environment altered by contaminants to its original condition. Bioremediation may be employed to attack specific soil contaminants, such as degradation of chlorinated hydrocarbons by bacteria. An example of a more general approach is the cleanup of oil spills by the addition of nitrate and/or sulfate fertilisers to facilitate the decomposition of crude oil by indigenous or exogenous bacteria.
Interest in the microbial biodegradation of pollutants has intensified in recent years as humanity strives to find sustainable ways to cleanup contaminated environments. These bioremediation and biotransformation methods endeavour to harness the astonishing, naturally occurring, ability of microbial xenobiotic metabolism to degrade, transform or accumulate a huge range of compounds including hydrocarbons (e.g. oil), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pharmaceutical substances, radionuclides and metals. Major methodological breakthroughs in recent years have enabled detailed genomic, metagenomic, proteomic, bioinformatic and other high-throughput analyses of environmentally relevant microorganisms providing unprecedented insights into key biodegradative pathways and the ability of organisms to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
The elimination of a wide range of pollutants and wastes from the environment is an absolute requirement to promote a sustainable development of our society with low environmental impact. Biological processes play a major role in the removal of contaminants and they take advantage of the astonishing catabolic versatility of microorganisms to degrade/convert such compounds. New methodological breakthroughs in sequencing, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and imaging are producing vast amounts of information. In the field of Environmental Microbiology, genome-based global studies open a new era providing unprecedented in silico views of metabolic and regulatory networks, as well as clues to the evolution of degradation pathways and to the molecular adaptation strategies to changing environmental conditions. Functional genomic and metagenomic approaches are increasing our understanding of the relative importance of different pathways and regulatory networks to carbon flux in particular environments and for particular compounds and they will certainly accelerate the development of bioremediation technologies and biotransformation processes.
Petroleum oil contains aromatic compounds that are toxic for most life forms. Episodic and chronic pollution of the environment by oil causes major ecological perturbations. Marine environments are especially vulnerable since oil spills of coastal regions and the open sea are poorly containable and mitigation is difficult. In addition to pollution through human activities, millions of tons of petroleum enter the marine environment every year from natural seepages. Despite its toxicity, a considerable fraction of petroleum oil entering marine systems is eliminated by the hydrocarbon-degrading activities of microbial communities, in particular by a remarkable recently discovered group of specialists, the so-called hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria (HCB) . Alcanivorax borkumensis was the first HCB to have its genome sequenced.
For more information (background, pictures, experiments and references): Bioremediation
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