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Imagine That! -- "Pollution-Eating Microbes"

Imagine That!
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Imagine That! -- "Pollution-Eating Microbes"

Credit: NSF/Finger Lakes Productions International

Audio Transcript:

One solution to pollution may be to find something that eats it. How about an army of "bioremediation bugs?"

Imagine That!

(SOUND: coal furnace, machinery)

Beginning in the 1800's, gases made from coal were used to light homes and streets everywhere. But these gasworks left a toxic legacy of coal tar underground. Recently, scientists discovered bacteria that eat naphthalene, a toxic coal tar component. Eugene Madsen, a microbiologist at Cornell University, says there are worse contaminants out there.

Madsen: "We hope that the information that we obtained via this study will provide a basis for discovering new types of organisms that can metabolize these more potent environmental pollutants."

(SOUND: munch, munch Pac-Man)

Madsen's team applied an analytical and molecular technique called stable isotope probing, to help them find pollution-eating microbes. They tagged naphthalene with the isotope carbon-thirteen, then released it into a coal tar waste site. They later found the isotope within previously unidentified bacteria -- "milk moustache"-type evidence -- these bacteria had consumed the naphthalene. There are millions of different microbes out there. Finding pollution-eaters among them can be challenging. Science just made it a little easier. I'm Eric Phillips.

"Imagine That!" covers projects funded by the U.S. government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at

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