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Jan 20, 2014 09:12 AM EST

Poison-Breathing Bacteria Could Help Remove Pollutants from Atmosphere, Study

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The bacteria found in mud along the banks of a remote salt lake near Yosemite National Park, breathe toxic metal like antimony and arsenic instead of oxygen, according to a University of Georgia study. Researchers said that these bacteria can be used to remove pollutants from the atmosphere and protect the surrounding ecosystems.

This ability of the organism to flourish on such harmful components, allows them to survive in the mud along the lake.

"Just like humans breathe oxygen, these bacteria respire poisonous elements to survive," Chris Abin, author of the paper, said in a statement. "It is particularly fond of arsenic, but it uses other related elements as well, and we think it may be possible to harness these natural abilities to make useful products out of different elements."

Antimony is a naturally occurring silver-colored metal that is widely used by industries to make plastics, vulcanized rubber, flame retardants, solar cells and LEDs among others. In order to make these products, the metal needs to be converted into antimony trioxide. Traditional chemical methods for the conversion process can be costly, time-consuming and can often generate harmful byproducts.

The newly discovered bacteria produce the useful industrial product (antimony trioxide) naturally as a result of respiration without creating poisonous byproducts.

"The antimony trioxide crystals produced by this bacterium are far superior to those that are currently produced using chemical methods," said James Hollibaugh, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Research Professor of Marine Sciences and principal investigator for the project. "We tested the crystals we made alongside commercially available products that are 99 percent pure, and ours is either of identical or superior quality."

Industries can preserve colonies of bacteria in holding tanks. They can collect antimony trioxide crystals naturally by feeding oxidized antimony to the bacteria. To keep the process going, the companies just need to feed more oxidized antimony into the tanks once a round of harvest is complete.

Apart from the refining process, the bacteria could also be used in treating waste water from mining operations and refineries. Preliminary tests showed that contaminants including selenium and tellurium could be removed with the help of the bacteria.

"It might be used in one of two ways," said Hollibaugh. "The bacteria could be used simply to clean up the water, but it might also be possible for the bacteria to help humans recover and recycle the valuable elements in the water."

The finding has been published journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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