Put in the simplest way, environmental biotechnology is used to study the natural environment.
Scientists who work in this field come up with various innovations to find solutions to environmental problems, and there are many areas in which this type of technology is already being used, such as when it comes to fighting climate change and pollution.
How does environmental biotechnology work?
Environmental biotechnology uses and develops the biological system to find solutions to problems. This includes cells, parts of cells, and enzymes to deal with issues such as contaminated air and water.
It also uses these organisms to develop eco-friendly processes, such as when it comes to sustainable development. There are many inventions and developments that you might know about and take for granted without realizing that environmental biotechnologists made it happen!
Four Environmental Biotechnology Achievements
Environmental biotechnology is nothing new. It first came about in the early 20th century when activated sludge to treat wastewater was created.
This paved the way for more developments and research. Let’s take a look at some of environmental biotech’s most impressive achievements to date.
Improved Wastewater Treatment Plants
Environmental biotechnology is used in the treatment of waste. How it works is that biological materials are used to process raw waste so that contaminants can be eliminated.
This preserves water, but here’s the fascinating thing about biotechnology – the solids that are in sewage can be transformed into humus with the use of bacteria. This is the part of soil that has the most nutrients.
On the topic of bacteria, most biological waste and wastewater treatments make use of these microscopic organisms in their designs. There are two methods in which they do this: aerobic and anaerobic methods.
In this method, organic material and water contaminants are removed from wastewater with the use of oxygen and bacteria. The bacteria breaks down the organic matter and transforms it into carbon dioxide.
This produces sludge, or a new biomass, which can then be used for other purposes, such as fertilizer. In this way, the process can be much more sustainable than when it’s composed of chemicals.
Anaerobic wastewater treatment doesn’t require oxygen to treat the wastewater. However, this process isn’t suitable if the waste that needs to be treated is high in oils or fats as it doesn’t work in an energy-efficient way.
The Use Of Biosensors To Detect Pollution And GMOs
Biosensors are analytical devices that can detect the presence and quantity of biological substances or chemical constituents. They can be used in various fields, such as agriculture, food, and medicine.
Biosensors can detect various substances, such as pollutants and toxins, in the environment, so they’re valuable devices for scientists. They also measure how much of these substances are in the environment.
One of their benefits is that they provide on-site detection of various pollutants that are present, while also providing research into various environmental processes at play, such as when it comes to how these pollutants are transported in the air.
Biosensors work in conjunction with the legislation. There’s been an increase in the need for chemicals to be identified and measured correctly to ensure that they are not in violation of human health, and biosensors enable this monitoring to occur.
Biosensors are also being used to detect the presence of heavy metals, such as zinc and lead, in the environment.
Interestingly, biosensors are increasing in popularity for various environmental issues and an example of this is how recently biosensors have been used to detect genetically modified microorganisms in food.
Since GMOs are controversial, these cutting-edge devices are analytical tools that can detect GMOs in a variety of food products. These devices can be optical, electrochemical, or piezoelectric systems, and they’re an exciting invention when it comes to how we can better monitor our food.
The Development Of Biogas
Biogas is biofuel that is produced naturally from organic waste which has decomposed. When organic matter breaks down in an environment that doesn’t contain oxygen, this produces gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
The large quantity of methane that’s present in biogas is flammable. This means that it can be used as an energy source.
Biogas is good for the environment because it prevents waste that produces harmful levels of methane gas on a global level and it also prevents our dependence on fossil fuel energy to help us meet global energy requirements.
The process of making biogas goes like this: bacteria is used to break down the insoluble organic polymers that are present in waste. Acidogenic bacteria is then used to break amino acid and sugar into organic acids, hydrogen, ammonia, and carbon dioxide.
This bacteria then breaks them down into more carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and acetic acid. Methanogens, a type of bacteria, is then brought into the process to use everything that isn’t carbon dioxide so that it can be transformed into methane and carbon dioxide.
The process produces a by-product known as digestate that can be used as fertilizer. After this process has occurred, biogas has to be processed so that other elements, such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, can be removed.
Genetic Engineering Of Existing Plants, Fungi, And Bacteria
The genetic modification of plants can help them to grow in a healthier manner, such as by making them resistant to pests and arid conditions so that they can thrive in various regions.
How the process works is that DNA is transferred into plant cells, which then produces a genetically modified plant. The seeds produced by the plant will also have this new DNA.
It’s not just plants that can be genetically engineered. Many other organisms can also undergo this process. Let’s look at three of them.
Bacteria such as E.coli have been genetically modified in order to synthesize fuel!
To achieve this, scientists had to combine different genes from different bacteria so that they could consume fat and release diesel fuel.
They combined metabolic reactions and built an artificial chemical pathway so that genetically modified E.coli bacteria could reproduce with high-fat broth to absorb fat molecules and transform them into hydrocarbons, which form the basis for petroleum-based fuels, as Smithsonian magazine reports.
While the above is a clear example of how scientists are already genetically modifying bacteria, bacteria can also be used to help the process of genetic engineering of plants.
When some bacteria are isolated from the soil, they have been found to possess qualities that can benefit plants, such as by making them more resistant to pathogens as well as pests.
An example of such bacteria is rhizobia. This type of bacteria has a unique ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen in leguminous plants and it can be used to transfer genes into plants in a more natural and effective way.
A well-known type of fungi that has shown promise in environmental biotechnology is Aspergillus niger which is already used for the production of enzymes and organic acids.
It’s very genetically diverse, which means that it can be genetically engineered to create many types of organic acids and compounds.
There are exciting developments we can expect in the near future, such as genetically engineering fungi that can kill mosquitoes which spread malaria.
As reported in the journal Science, researchers have found that a spider gene to genetically modify fungus can produce a toxic substance which can kill mosquitoes.
In tests, this fungus was very effective and could be a life-saving invention in areas where malaria causes many deaths and health problems, such as in Africa.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that in 2017, approximately 435,000 people lost their lives to malaria. This GM fungus could, therefore, make a hugely positive impact.
Scientists are always trying to find new organisms that can help to eliminate pollutants from the environment, and an exciting one is enzymes!
These are currently being used to remove pharmaceutical drug residue from wastewater, which is a big problem because it harms the environment and has even been found to disrupt sex hormones and organs in fish.
While we might assume that wastewater treatment plants eliminate this type of pollution, many of them can’t.
A team of researchers from Sweden has found that some enzymes break down organic pollutants in water.
The interesting thing about this is that the chemicals that scientists want to be broken down can be identified and then the right enzyme can be found to achieve that goal, therefore tailoring the process to specific pollutants.
The enzymes are also genetically modified so that they can target and eliminate the specific pollutant. Since 2013, a company called Pharem Biotech has been using enzyme-based water treatment systems and they’re already on the market for use in municipal and industrial waste treatments, as Labiotech reports.
What We Can Expect From Environmental Biotechnology In The Future
There are many environmental biotechnology developments and innovations that are in the pipelines. Here’s a rundown of some of the most exciting ones.
Using Bacteria To Mop Up Oil Spills
Oil spills pollute the environment and harm animals, which is why scientists are always finding new ways to mop them up with natural solutions.
In 2018, oil that leaked into waterways in Columbia took the life of over 2,400 animals, including fish, birds, reptiles, and cattle, as National Geographic reports. Many people also suffered the negative effects, with many of them needing medical assistance for symptoms such as dizziness and vomiting.
While scientists are already using interesting ways of dealing with oil spills in order to conserve the environment, such as with the use of microbes that degrade the oil, they are also working on using bacteria to eliminate its harmful effects.
Professor Satinder Kaur Brar and her team of researchers at INRS have found a bacterium called A. borkumensis that contains various enzymes which can degrade many substances in oil.
Best of all, it’s not just proving to be effective when it comes to cleaning up oil. Studies have found that it can remove toluene, xylene, and benzene in a variety of conditions which makes it very effective at cleaning both polluted water and land, as Phys Org reports.
Removal Of Heavy Metals With Bacteria And GM Plants
Heavy metals are dangerous to human health and the environment, mainly because they cannot be degraded chemically. They linger in environments, where they can cause harm to the land, water and animals because they’re toxic.
Heavy metal exposure has also been reported to have negative side effects for humans, such as damage to important organs like the brain and lungs.
Both bacteria and the use of GM plants have proven to be effective when it comes to removing heavy metals from the environment.
Bacteria have been found to be promising when it comes to removing dangerous heavy metals from water. Even though we might think of bacteria such as E.coli as being harmful, because it can be, it turns out that it has positive traits when it comes to being able to remove heavy metals.
In research that looked at how successful E.coli and B. subtilis were at removing heavy metals in water, scientists discovered that under optimal conditions that ensure the correct level of pH and temperature, around 64 percent to 69 percent of cadmium can be eliminated by these types of bacteria, and between 68 percent of lead can be removed by them, as the Journal of Shanghai University reports.
Genetically engineered plants, on the other hand, can be transformed to resist heavy metals, thus preventing them from getting into our food. An example of crops that have already been genetically engineered to do this include rice and mustard crops.
This is important because crops that are grown on land that’s irrigated with contaminated ground water can absorb these toxic materials and transfer them into their grains which end up on our plates.
An innovative way to prevent plants from being affected by heavy metals such as arsenic is by genetically modifying them with genes from bacteria and fungi that are resistant to arsenic.
By removing those genes from the microorganisms, scientists can then transfer them into the plants to make them resistant to the metals.
The Use Of Bacteria To Eliminate Pollution
Bacteria is showing much promise when it comes to eliminating pollutants. One example is how it can consume plastic that’s responsible for much of our environmental pollution as well as waste that’s clogging landfills.
This could potentially eliminate the plastic problem that has a lack of recycling as one of its biggest culprits – nearly 91 percent of plastic doesn’t get recycled, as National Geographic reports.
An exciting study is the use of bacteria to consume toxic pollutants and “breathe out” electricity. A research team from Washington State University found microorganisms at the Yellowstone National Park and studied them.
They found that certain bacteria eliminate toxic pollutants by making them less harmful and they also release electricity. While humans get electrons from sugars in food and transfer them into oxygen that we breathe, some bacteria actually release their electrons and place them on outside metals.
These bacteria then move electrons into metal surfaces and it creates a stream of electricity, as Business Recorder reports.
It’s clear to see that environmental biotechnology isn’t just about finding solutions to problems in our environment but also making these solutions more sustainable, such as by ensuring that whatever is used doesn’t go to waste.
Is some bacteria useful for human health?
Not all bacteria are bad! Some bacteria have many useful tasks for the human body. They break down toxins, help us to absorb fatty acids that encourage cell growth, and can protect intestinal cells from pathogens.
What are the main sources of heavy metals?
Sources include industrial, pharmaceutical, and agricultural sources, but heavy metals can also be present in domestic effluents and have atmospheric sources too, such as vehicle emissions and the burning of coal.
Environmental biotechnology is an exciting field that has already achieved a lot when it comes to making the earth more sustainable and improving human health, such as with the development of biosensors and GM crops to prevent exposure to heavy metals.
Many new processes and innovations are in the works to improve the health of our planet, too. These include the use of bacteria to eliminate pollution.
By appreciating the smaller microorganisms that are all around us and using them in new ways, environmental biotechnologists are able to help us deal with various problems and pave the way for a healthier future.