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Some bacteria eat radioactive material. Why don’t they die and when will we be able to start making use of them?



Image: HZDR / 3DKosmos Sander Münster

A lot of bacteria have mechanisms that protect them from radioactive, or rather toxic materials. Take uranium, for example. This heavy metal is radioactive, certainly, but it’s mostly dangerous because it’s so toxic. Some bacteria release organic acids that help them remove uranium from the surface of their cells. Other microorganisms transport it out of their cells or, failing that, bind it to structures or substances within them – because uranium is only toxic as a dissolved compound. Although the mechanisms separate uranium from the bacteria’s cells or its metabolism, they do not get rid of it entirely. Nevertheless, the processes are effective enough to stop the cells being damaged and dying. What’s more, many bacteria are also capable of repairing radiation-induced damage.
It is technically possible for us to use these mechanisms to clean uranium from soils, construction materials and water. Trials are already being carried out, but it will probably be a decade before practicable solutions are available. As part of the biotechnology group at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR), we are currently working on filters that use these bacterial processes. So far we have been unable to produce them cheaply enough. We might be able to get there in three to five years’ time.

This question was answered by Dr Johannes Raff of the research group ‘Biotechnology’ at the group, Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf.