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Faculty-Student Researchers Study Novel Approach to Reducing Toxic Waste

While many scientists fight disease-causing bacteria, a Whitworth faculty-student research team is studying ways to use bacteria to reduce toxic waste. Assistant Professor of Biology Frank Caccavo and senior biology major Kathleen Fisher are using a $33,330 M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust grant to develop technologies that use bacteria to clean up toxic waste through a process called bioremediation.

The two-year undergraduate research project, "Ecology of Bioaugmentation with Metal-reducing Bacteria," focuses on microorganisms that "breathe" toxic metals much the way humans breathe oxygen. The metals that these organisms transform include radioactive substances such as uranium and cobalt, metals that Caccavo says were used at Washington state's Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

"These radioactive metals were dumped into the groundwater as waste during the manufacture of nuclear weapons," Caccavo says. "The metal wastes are now migrating through groundwater toward the Columbia River, which poses a threat to the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest."

Some microbes convert these metal wastes into a precipitate that does not migrate in groundwater, Caccavo says. He and Fisher hope that the microbes can be injected in the ground to create a biological barrier that would protect the Columbia River, but one obstacle stands in their way.

"We don't know what will happen when we inject the organisms into the ground," Caccavo says. "We are conducting research designed to answer that very question."

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