Berkeley Lab Research News


New Program Will Study Biological Cleanup of Toxic Sites

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By Allan Chen,

August 2, 1996

BERKELEY, CA -- Microorganisms can help reduce toxic chemicals such as hydrocarbons and radionuclides at hazardous waste sites if scientists can find more effective ways to harness and accelerate the natural processes of bioremediation.

This is the goal of an ambitious nationwide effort called the Natural and Accelerated Bioremediation Research (NABIR) program. The Department of Energy's Office of Health and Environmental Research (OHER) has embarked on this new program to develop the scientific foundation needed to harness microorganisms that will help address DOE's cleanup needs. OHER selected the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to provide a critical role in the 10-year, multi-million dollar program.

NABIR represents a new basic science research effort of DOE with applications to the cleanup of the agency's hundreds of environmentally contaminated sites (as well as hazardous waste sites everywhere).

Sally Benson, manager of NABIR's Program Office at Berkeley Lab said, "This is one of the most exciting research opportunities to come to the geological, biological and engineering sciences in a long time." Benson states that NABIR is expected to ultimately involve dozens of universities and other research institutions.

For years, researchers have demonstrated bioremediation techniques in the lab that can reduce certain types of contamination. A large body of research has focused on microbes that convert petroleum hydrocarbons into water and carbon dioxide more cost-effectively than physical and chemical methods of treating soil.

Scientists have also studied microorganisms that can degrade industrial solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls, explosives and agricultural chemicals. Certain plants sequester heavy metals and radioactive substances; harvesting removes the contaminants from circulation.

According to Benson, one problem is that techniques which work in the laboratory don't always work in full-scale field sites. "Mixtures of different types of contaminants often confound techniques that can remedy a single contaminant," she said. "Researchers need to better understand the complex interactions of biology, chemistry and geology in the soil, the water and the air before they can convert natural bioremediation into a tool for cleaning up the wide variety of contamination in sites throughout the world."

NABIR's research areas include understanding the fundamental mechanisms of the transformation and degradation of mixtures of contaminants. Another will examine how biotechnology can accelerate natural processes using novel genes from bioremedial organisms. The program will also establish field research sites where scientists can study how bioremedial processes actually work at contaminated locations."

The program office led by Berkeley Lab will work with DOE program managers to coordinate the work of scientists from many specialties into a smoothly integrated effort, and it will also communicate with the managers of contaminated areas to anchor NABIR projects in the needs of real sites.

Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified research and is managed by the University of California.