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E. Coli Can Be Used To Clean Up Nuclear Waste 102

Posted by kdawson
from the make-yourself-useful dept.
jerryjamesstone writes "Researchers have found that E. coli can be used to recover uranium from tainted waters and can even be used to clean up nuclear waste. Using the bacteria along with inositol phosphate, the bacteria breaks down the phosphate — also called phytic acid — to free the phosphate molecules. The phosphate then binds to the uranium forming a uranium-phosphate precipitate on the cells of the bacteria. Those cells can then be harvested to recover the uranium." What has made this 14-year-old process economically feasible is the use of inositol phosphate, which is a cheap waste material from the production feedstock from plant material.
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E. Coli Can Be Used To Clean Up Nuclear Waste

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  • by Goffee71 (628501) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:08AM (#29501631) Homepage
    Surely the e-coli just wants to cuddle up to something warm, nothing unusual in that
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:14AM (#29501649)

    I for one welcome our new radioactive, disease spreading overlords!

    • by AmIAnAi (975049) *
      My first thought was along these lines too. Will the Uranium promote mutation into more deadly forms? I hope the Uranium (and E-coli) recovery is going to be tightly controlled
      • This is highly unlikely. While exposure to radioactivity promotes mutation, nearly all of it is fatal or detrimental to the mutant. Remember that the radiation is causing mutation by creating breaks in the DNA strands, basically causing irreparable damage.

        • Actually, I think the radioactivity will create viable mutations. But then those mutants need a niche that is exploitable by their particular mutation.

          But all this mutation talk seems like it's off-topic. I'm more interested to hear more about this technique of precipitating metals using phytic acid.

          We have large uranium mine tailings that need to be cleaned up. We also have other radioactive materials that need to be neutralized.

          Also, I wonder if this technique can be used to extract materials suc
          • Yes, it is possible some viable mutants will result. However, would the chances be any higher of producing a strain of E. coli that are deadlier to humans? I doubt it.

            Back on topic, is the uranium-phosphate that is produced still radioactive, or does this just make it easier to extract and remove from the environment?

            • by wkcole (644783)

              Yes, it is possible some viable mutants will result. However, would the chances be any higher of producing a strain of E. coli that are deadlier to humans? I doubt it.

              Increasing the mutation rate has to increase the chances of mutants that are both viable and more harmful. Mutations from radiation are essentially random, so more mutation events means more mutation varieties, and so a greater chance of something very bad happening. Analogy: a handful of 5 6-sided dice. If you roll those dice once an hour, your chances of rolling all sixes in any day is very low: 1 in 324. If you roll them every 5 seconds you don't have a better shot at all sixes in any particular roll (1

        • by Eudial (590661)

          Besides, bacteria mutate at a very high rate as it is, since they have such short generation gaps.

          So even if some radiation-induced mutations survive, it's probably not going to be a significant increase in mutation rate.

      • Re:I for one... (Score:5, Informative)

        by Sylver Dragon (445237) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @12:54PM (#29505875) Journal
        It's not really a worry.

        First off, naturally occurring Uranium isn't all that radioactive. For the most part its U238, which doesn't give off much radiation. And, spent reactor fuel is even more skewed towards U238, otherwise known as Depleted Uranium, the stuff the military uses for armor piercing bullets. You can hold either of this stuff in your bare hands and not have any ill effects. One thing to keep in mind with radioactive materials, the stuff which has half lives of millions or billions of years (U238 is 4.46 billion years, U235 is 703 Million years) isn't producing a heck of a lot of ionizing radiation. The problem with Uranium is that it is a toxic heavy metal, and like other toxic heavy metals (lead, thorium) it will deposit in your internal organs, build up and eventually kill you.

        The second problem with the mutated E. Coli of Death is that the vast majority of mutations will result death fairly quickly. Of the ones which don't, they will probably just result in death slowly. Yes, the E. Coil could get some sort of useful mutation out of it, but it's not really more likely to happen in this cleanup site than anywhere else.
        • Don't forget that U234 decays into Rn222 which is where this lovely gas comes from. Given enough uranium, the concentration of radon will build up to deadly amounts.
          • Actually U-234 decays to Th-230, from Th-230 to Ra-226, then Ra-226 to Rn-222. And the half lives of Th-230 and Ra-226 are in the thousands of years, where Rn-222 is like 4 days. The Rn-222 produced from the decay chain of Uranium-234 should thus deplete much faster than the chain creates more.
            • Correct, but if there is a large amount of uranium (perhaps in huge fill pools of coal ash etc.), there is likely to be some radon present. Its probably not a big deal though unless the radon is concentrated. All in all you are right because there probably wouldn't be enough spent fuel to create dangerous amounts, I was just commenting.
        • You can hold either of this stuff in your bare hands and not have any ill effects.

          Boy to people always forget the fourth dimension.
          The question is *how long* you can do that, and *how strong* the effects will be.

          Without time, I could say that I can hold my hand into fire. (For some milliseconds.)

          The problem with Uranium is that it is a toxic heavy metal, and like other toxic heavy metals (lead, thorium) it will deposit in your internal organs, build up and eventually kill you.

          Aaah... There's the (partial) answer. ;)

    • Or the bacteria can give us all super powers

  • by Thanshin (1188877) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:22AM (#29501673)

    Someone's bound to get bitten, and then what?

    Will e-coliman protect us from the villains?

  • Ingenious (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:23AM (#29501677)

    So a combined chemical and biological threat can defeat a nuclear one, after all!

  • Bad timing (Score:4, Funny)

    by celibate for life (1639541) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:26AM (#29501691)
    Had they discovered that a couple of years ago they could have used all that e-coli infested frozen spinach that went to waste!
  • by garompeta (1068578) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:33AM (#29501721)
    Does it mean that McDonalds is a safe place to hide in a nuclear war?
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Centurix (249778)

      I'd say the nuclear waste has a shorter half life than a McDonalds burger. The waste is probably easier to digest for the poor thing. Think of the E.Coli!

      • by OxyFrog (727507)
        I'd really, really hope that nuclear waste has a shorter half life than a McDonald's burger. Shorter half-life = more radioactive than.
    • by RuBLed (995686)
      Would you really want to?
  • Oh, Well... (Score:2, Funny)

    by blcamp (211756)

    Shit happens.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:58AM (#29501817)

    One day we will find out that e-coli prefers uranium-235, not long after it happens to make a nice deposit of this benign material.

  • nucular. (Score:4, Funny)

    by thhamm (764787) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @06:22AM (#29501905)
    i'm sorry, but it's pronounced 'nucular' [youtube.com].
    • by R2.0 (532027)

      "i'm sorry, but it's pronounced 'nucular'."

      Wow, I didn't know YouTube has clips of Jimmy Carter's old speeches.

  • I for one... (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by kazade84 (1078337)
    I for one welcome our radioactive super powered waste eating bacteria overlords

    .... I'll get my coat.
  • by acidfast7 (551610) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @06:40AM (#29501965)
    i must remind you that it's E. coli NOT E. Coli.

    even better would be E. coli, but perhaps I ask too much :(

  • She is rather egg-cellent to comment on e-coli.
  • Nuclear E. coli can be used to clean up human waste. So everybody's a winner.
  • by Tony Hoyle (11698) <tmh@nodomain.org> on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @07:15AM (#29502113) Homepage

    Just build petting zoos on top of nuclear waste dumps. Problem solved! [sky.com]

  • Naturally (Score:5, Funny)

    by bytesex (112972) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @07:41AM (#29502223) Homepage

    Uranium is the element named after Uranus, right ? No wonder it attracts E.Coli.

  • depressing... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nietsch (112711) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @07:54AM (#29502279) Homepage Journal

    All those commenters that need to make that very funny joke about E.coli => poop. Man, that was funny when you were 6, not 20 or 30 years later.
    But to go back on topic: This looks a bit like a solution looking for a problem. How much low grade uranium waste is there anyway? Or do they propose to use it in primary uranium mining, to make low uranium content ore usable?
    Yes there is an unsolved waste problem with uranium fission, but this proposed solution is no solution to that.

    • by dunezone (899268)

      Man, that was funny when you were 6, not 20 or 30 years later.

      But at 40 and 50 years later its pure comedy once again.

    • by jack2000 (1178961)
      The possibility for random mutation of the E. coli is what staggers me, AND they haven't thought of that?! WTF! A whatcouldpossiblygowrong indeed!|
      • by Tweenk (1274968)

        99,9...% of random mutations cause premature death. Of the beneficial ones, exactly 0% cause the bacteria to transform into man-eating eldritch abominations. "Dangerous mutants" are a pop culture thing and pretending they are a real possibility is funny.

    • by papasui (567265)
      I visited one of the Elliot Lake, Ontario mines back in the early 90s. These were primarily Uranium mines and the reason for visiting was my hometown (Crandon, WI) had one of the larger zinc/copper finds in the US. My parents were in fairly respected positions in the community so Exxon/Rio Algom paid for us to go on a little trip up there and take a look at what they proposed for our town. One of the major concerns I recall walking away with was what mining did to the lake. The uranium tailings were dir
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by mayko (1630637)
      It is a solution for a pop culture non-problem. What I mean by that is... All of the people who are irrationally scared of the word "nuclear" have the same fearful position on nuclear power.

      "What do we do with the waste? Not in my back yard!!!"

      "The run off from uranium mining can rape the local flora. Not in my back yard!!!"

      It isn't about solving some huge looming problem. It is about pacification of people's irrational fears so we can actually build nuclear power plants and stop spewing mercury an
      • It isn't about solving some huge looming problem. It is about pacification of people's irrational fears so we can actually build nuclear power plants and stop spewing mercury and radioactive ash into the air.

        By all means, pacify irrational fears.

        However, being worried about the environmental impact of uranium mining (beyond NIMBYism), about the security and weapon proliferation issues involved in putting plutonium factories all over the place, and about the lack of a solution for waste disposal, is not ir

      • by MrKaos (858439)

        It is about pacification of people's irrational fears so we can actually build nuclear power plants and stop spewing mercury and radioactive ash into the air.

        There is nothing irrational about not wanting to ingest radioactive isotopes because they have been bio-concentrated by the environment into the food chain. Once radioactive isotopes are *inside* the body the mutagenic properties cause cancers. If this stops excess uranium entering the environment then that is a good thing. Unfortunately there are a p

    • by jonadab (583620)
      I think you're off by at least six years. Poop jokes are inherently hilarious to most twelve-year-old boys, unless I am gravely mistaken. HTH.HAND.
    • by Kasar (838340)
      Cleanup in places like the Black Triangle and other places in Central and Eastern Europe would be the most obvious use for this if it can be done economically. The mining tailings and waste are only part of the problem, but anything helps when nations like Hungary are spending billions on inherited messes.

      They should move on to molten-glass Thorium reactors really though, Uranium's so 1945.
  • I love hearing about turning aids into a cancer fighting ailment.
    I love hearing about using waste from the farms to develop the ecoli, which will then recycle the nuclear waste we are accumulating.
    Imagine if now, the nuclear waste did not have to go missing off the back end of ships and trucks everywhere, because we had a safe means of disposal....it would not only make the garbage management industry falter, but make us rethink our failure to adopt nuclear energy as a viable source for cities everywhere.

  • Paging Fred Small, paging Fred Small, there's a song in this story trying to get out.

  • And now they're going to dump a bunch of E. coli into the Great Lake to... clean it up? What a country! http://www.beyondnuclear.org/storage/fermi_holtec-press_releasejune09.pdf [beyondnuclear.org]
  • Looks like its time to start moving assets into http://www.google.com/finance?client=ob&q=NASDAQ:JACK [google.com]
  • Cool. Now my stool can glow in the dark!
  • How will this affect my nuclear piles?

  • The reference to Ghost in the Shell is tempting, but unfortunately, the "Japanese Miracle" from GitS involved using nanomachines for radiation clean-up. Still, pretty interesting.

    The article says it can clean up nuclear waste. Does this mean it can clean up sites where a nuclear explosion has taken place? (Sorry if that's a dumb question, I'm not that knowledgeable on this). If so, I am more interested in what this will mean politically: does this mean using nuclear weapons has become a much easier option?

    • I dont know how helpful crop dusting all the victims of a nuclear explosion with Ecoli would be. I think that might constitute a further war crime.
    • by jhfry (829244)

      I never knew that nuclear blast zones were so contaminated that they were of much concern. I always thought that the hundreds of thousands killed in an instant was the deterrent, not the expensive clean up.

  • All jokes aside, nuclear waste "mutated" E Coli. Why am I the only one who thinks this is a bad idea?
    Making life radioactive? is that really a good idea?

  • That everyone down that river now constantly shits his pants, instead of losing hair, and that that makes them die even quicker. :P

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