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A Step Forward for Bioremediation

Berkeley Lab researchers have revealed critical genetic secrets of a bacterium that holds potential for removing toxic and radioactive waste from the environment. The researchers have provided the first ever map of the genes that determine how these bacteria interact with their surrounding environment.

“Knowing how bacteria respond to environmental changes is crucial to our understanding of how their physiology tracks with consequences that are both good, such as bioremediation, and bad, such as biofouling,” says Aindrila Mukhopadhyay, a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division, who led this research. “We have reported the first systematic mapping of the genes in a sulfate-reducing bacterium – Desulfovibrio vulgaris – that regulate the mechanisms by which the bacteria perceive and respond to environmental signals.”

Desulfovibrio vulgaris is an anaerobic bacterium that is present in many ecological niches and serves as a model organism for the study of sulfate-reducing bacteria. The microbe has drawn much attention – both positive and negative – for its ability to metabolize metals. On the positive side, D. vulgaris can generate enzymes that reduce toxic heavy metals and radioactive nuclides into non-hazardous forms. On the negative side, D. vulgaris corrodes the metals used in oil drilling and storage operations.

“For all of these reasons, it is important that we understand the molecular signaling systems by which D. vulgaris interacts with and survives in its many different environments,” says Mukhopadhyay. “Yet, after more than seven decades of study, not a single one of the approximately 70 known molecular signaling systems in D. vulgaris had been characterized.”