Thanks, Invisible Little Water Filters

Tiny microorganisms that consume human-produced pollutants are helping reclaim contaminated sites and safeguard clean water.

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In Canada, it may seem that clean water will never run out.   The Great Lakes basin is one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world.  But water has no boundaries, it can move from the air to the earth to the ocean, and many of the services and technologies that come with being an advanced society create pollutants that can contaminate our water supply.  For example, the dry-cleaning compound, perchloroethylene or PERC, is toxic.  The University of Waterloo recently showed that nitrates from fertilizer used today could persist in drinking water for decades.

Many researchers are turning to Nature for problem-solving inspiration.  You may have read about how Prof. David Sinton is harnessing photosynthetic organisms like algae to produce energyElizabeth Edwards, Professor in the Faculty of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry and Director of Biozone at the University of Toronto, is using single-celled microorganisms to clean up contaminated water.

“Little microorganisms, single-celled creatures, use the things that we think are nasty – contaminants or poisons – they can use them as their food,” says Prof. Edwards.

Using molecular biology, analytical chemistry, and genetics, Prof. Edwards’ lab studies microbial communities to understand how they perform these biodegradation reactions.  They can then use this information to tailor the conditions under which these creatures work and speed up the rate at which they decompose contaminants.  The Edwards lab also looks for new microbial species that perform ever newer biotransformation reactions.

One such microorganism culture that the Edwards lab identified is now being sold worldwide through the spin-off company SiREM.  This specialized microorganism can degrade PERC and other highly related industrial solvents.  Contaminated industrial sites can now release it to remediate the area.

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Elizabeth Edwards is the Director of BioZone and a Professor in the Dept. of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry.  She is an internationally renowned expert in bioremediation and environmental biotechnology who has spent over 20 years developing techniques that use bacteria to clean up sites with groundwater contamination.  The focus of her work is to harness and enhance the innate ability of soil micro-organisms to biologically transform common toxic pollutants, such as gasoline and industrial solvents, to render them less harmful to the environment and human health.  Her research involves the characterization of microbial communities that degrade these compounds, and the use of molecular tools to detect gene and protein expression.

Dr. Edwards brings expertise in engineering scale-up and commercial application of bioproducts to BioZone, and was recently recognized with the 2009 NSERC Synergy Award for her highly successful partnership with Geosyntec, an international environmental consulting firm with whom she developed a microbial consortium called KB-1®.  This commercially successful bioproduct biodegrades two of the world’s most common and persistent groundwater pollutants, PCE (a common dry-cleaning agent) and TCE (a degreasing solvent), more quickly and at a lower cost than conventional methods.  It has been used at over 200 sites around the world.

Dr. Edwards’ research accomplishments have been recognized with several prestigious awards, including an NSERC Women’s Faculty Award, a Premier’s Research Excellence Award (PREA) and a Killam Research Fellowship (Canada Council for the Arts).  She has been in inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineering and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Her publications include over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles, and as many government and industrial reports, book chapters and conference papers.