Smart Takes

Researchers use bacteria to make radioactive material inert

Researchers use bacteria to make radioactive material inert

Posting in Science

One of the biggest problems with nuclear power is that something must be done with the leftover radioactive waste. One scientist may have a solution: sulfate-reducing bacteria.

One of the biggest problems with nuclear power is that something must be done with the leftover radioactive waste.

Judy Wall may have a solution.

Wall, a biochemistry professor at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, is researching the use of sulfate-reducing bacteria to convert toxic radioactive metal into inert substances.

Wall and a research team from the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California are studying bio-corrosive bacteria, named Desulfovibrio vulgaris, that have the ability to change the solubility of heavy metals. For example, the bacteria can take uranium and convert it to uraninite, a nearly insoluble substance.

Wall's research could be beneficial to the heavy metal pollution caused by storage tanks and industrial waste. Thought the bacteria are already present in more than 7,000 heavy metal contaminated sites, they live in a specific range of oxygen and temperature, making them difficult to control.

Worse, the microbes can contribute to massive iron corrosion.

The team is investigating the bacterium's basic genetics in hope of determining its growth limits and activity in natural settings. The researchers are also looking into how to make the bacterium's interactions with metals sustainable, and have identified a few genes that are critical to converting uranium.

The question is just how long the changed material would remain inert.

Share this

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure