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Bioremediation: a response to
gross environmental abuse
The Industrial Revol ut i on has
occur r ed in different countries and
regions o f t he wor l d at various times
duri ng t he past cent ur y and a half.
Thr oughout this expanded t i me-
scale, national economi c policies
have emphasized, and cont i nue t o
emphasize industrialization as the key
for devel opment , irrespective of
whet her t he pol i t i co- economi c
orientation o f the count r y in question
is towards a free market or a centrally
cont rol l ed economi c system. The
recent economi c collapse o f many
centrally cont rol l ed economi es has
not resulted f r om their failure t o
pr omot e industrialization but , t o a
considerable extent, f r om their
failure to recogni ze the need for
cont i nuous i nvest ment in, and re-
newal of, their industries in order t o
maintain t hem in an internationally
compet i t i ve state.
Historically, excessive localized
pol l ut i on o f the natural envi r onment
by industries was regarded as a key
indicator o f the economi c success o f
a particular regi on but , today, con-
t i nui ng excessive pol l ut i on is a sure
sign o f industries in decline. Whilst
the ideal o f zero industrial discharge
remains, as yet, an unattainable
objective, wast e-mi ni mi zat i on poli-
cies have been embr aced by t he
maj ori t y o f the mor e successful
industrial enterprises. Ext endi ng t he
vol unt ary adopt i on o f wast e- mi ni -
mi zat i on practices will reduce t he
future need for remedi at i on t ech-
nologies, as will legislation and codes
o f operat i ng practice. However ,
neither legislation, nor codes o f oper -
ating practice, will prevent accidents:
t hey can onl y be r educed in their
frequency and probabl e impact.
Remedi at i on and restoration t ech-
nologies are predomi nant l y directed
towards t he clean up o f sites that have
been subjected t o pol l ut i on in t he
Past excesses, current pr obl e ms ,
f ut ure l egi s l at i on
Muc h historical pol l ut i on can be
traced t o either wast e- management
practices t hat advocat ed disposal
rather t han treatment, or t o bot h
accidental and incidental spillages
that wer e i gnored in times o f non-
existent, ineffective or unenf or ced
envi r onment al - pr ot ect i on legis-
lation. Unfort unat el y, legislation
designed to prot ect t he envi r onment
is onl y enact ed retrospectively, as a
response when pol l ut i on is already
out o f cont rol , rather t han as a
pr e- empt i ve measure. However ,
envi ronment al legislation, as its
basis moves towards bet t er concep-
tual underst andi ng o f t he i mpact of
pollutants i n t he envi r onment , is
increasingly designed bot h t o
ameliorate the adverse effects o f past
pollution, and to require i mmedi at e
act i on to mi ni mi ze i mpact when
industrial accidents pr oduci ng new
pol l ut i on do occur. Virtually all
industrial companies seek to operate
wi t hi n t he requirements o f t he law,
but to enable t hem to do so, the
necessary t echnol ogy for pol l ut i on
cont rol and pol l ut ant el i mi nat i on
must be available.
Bi oremedi at i on represents onl y
one gr oup o f diverse cl ean-up strat-
egies. For it t o prove commerci al l y
attractive and, hence, be empl oyed
extensively, it will need t o provi de
cost-effective solutions for a broad
range o f difficult and demandi ng
cl ean-up problems, wi t h de mon-
strated advantages over alternative,
non-bi ol ogi cal l y medi at ed cl ean-up
t echnol ogy. As far as meet i ng t he
criteria o f bot h predictable per f or m-
ance and cost effectiveness, bi o-
remedi at i on is in its infancy. For it
t o become a widespread commerci al
success, it must under go an acceler-
ated devel opment based on scientific
understanding, rather t han on
assumptions and good luck.
Chr oni c po l l ut i o n and was t e -
di sposal practi ces
Indust ry does not deliberately pr o-
duce product s that are either un-
necessarily toxic or hazardous in
some ot her way. Noxi ous pollutants
are, t o a considerable extent, either
t he by- pr oduct s or the residues that
result f r om material inputs designed
to satisfy the publ i c' s demands for
cont i nuous i mpr ovement in stan-
dards o f living. For several decades,
significant cust omer demand existed
© 1993, Elsevier Science Publishers Ltd (UK)
and, i n many situations still exists, for
materials that are increasingly recal-
citrant, and for biocides that are
market ed on t he basis o f maxi mum
act i ve-i ngredi ent concent r at i on
rather than their ability t o cont rol t he
targets in question effectively. Whilst
the probl ems associated wi t h such
products are frequently percei ved t o
be associated exclusively wi t h their
sites o f manufacture, many, and in
some cases most, problems stem from
either the i nt ended use o f these
chemicals, or f r om the met hod used
for their disposal.
Waste disposal, as opposed t o
either waste t reat ment or recovery,
has domi nat ed wast e- management
phi l osophy until now. I n strictly
economi c terms, disposal options
have always seemed mor e attractive
than investment in wast e-t reat ment
technologies. Unt i l very recently,
the practice o f dumpi ng wastes i nt o
the marine envi ronment , on the er-
roneous basis that unl i mi t ed possi-
bilities for dilution exist, remai ned
essentially unchallenged. Further,
the practice o f disposing o f urban
garbage and solid industrial waste in
landfills remains a wi del y accept ed
wast e-management practice, in spite
of identified hazards, i ncl udi ng
noxious-gas mi grat i on and t oxi c-
leachate product i on, that are associ-
ated wi t h such practices unless
conduct ed in the most sophisticated
o f manners.
The nature o f waste bei ng gener-
ated has changed significantly wi t h
time, particularly wi t h respect t o the
pr opor t i on o f xenobi ot i cs present.
The market for such product s exists
because o f their cost - per f or mance
record, but the question o f whet her
so many such product s shoul d have
been based on advances in or gano-
chlorine chemi st ry is generally
evaded. Whi l st chl ori ne is clearly
associated wi t h the funct i on o f many
biocides, its i ncorporat i on i nt o bul k
plastics suggests a surreptitious
means o f disposal for excess chlorine
pr oduced as a result o f dispro-
port i onat e demands for alkali in the
manufacture o f chemicals, but one
whi ch transfers t he pr obl em t o the
need to develop adequate means for
the eventual disposal/ t reat ment o f
such plastics.
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As far as their presence in solid
industrial wastes is concer ned, the
question of off-specification product s
is rarely broached. Most o f the
potentially mor e- t oxi c compounds
(other than intermediates) that are
pr oduced by t he chemi cal industry
are manufact ured in relatively small
quantities using batch techniques in
mul t i purpose plants whi ch, until
recently, have had restricted scope
for opt i mi zi ng process-cont rol . As
t he performance characteristics of
such product s are strictly controlled,
pr oduct i on under suboptimal con-
ditions can result in product s that fail
t o meet the specifications requi red
for their sale. Particularly wher e off-
specification product s deviate from
accept ed t oxi ci t y limits because of
t he presence o f impurities, t hey
become wastes. So far, t he met hod o f
handl i ng such materials has been t o
seal t hem in steel drums, irrespective
o f whet her t hey are liquids,
slurries, or solids, and to dispose o f
the drums in landfills or at sea. Land-
fill disposal is already creating signifi-
cant opport uni t i es for remedl at i on
wher ever this once-accept abl e dis-
posal practice was formerl y used.
D e c a y i n g i n d u s t r i e s a n d p o l l u t a n t
r e l e a s e
In addition t o economi c pressures
as the driving force i n det ermi ni ng
operat i ng practices, a furt her pr ob-
l em is that once an i ndust ry l o s e s
its economi c competitiveness, it
inevitably moves i nt o decline. Such
declines have been synonymous wi t h
r educed measures to cont rol pol l u-
t i on and markedl y reduced standards
o f housekeeping.
Coal - gas manufacture
A notable example o f such a
decline is the coal-gas industry. I n
industrialized countries, coal gas was
ext remel y i mport ant for heat i ng and
lighting duri ng the latter decades of
the ni net eent h cent ury and the first
hal f o f this cent ury. Coal gas was
pr oduced at gas works located wi t hi n
t o w n s and cities rangi ng i n size f r om
a few t housand t o several million in
popul at i on, and supplied t o homes
and factories by unl i nked local distri-
but i on networks.
Factors that pr omot ed the decline
in coal-gas pr oduct i on wer e compe-
tition from electricity, f r om t he ready
availability o f heavy fuel oil whi ch
coul d be convert ed i nt o oil gas, and
the di scovery o f remot e, but ver y
large reserves o f natural gas whi ch,
wi t h devel opment s in l ong-di st ance
pipeline transmission and cryogeni c
mari ne transportation and storage,
allowed it to compet e effectively in
the energy market. Decl i ne in t he
coal-gas industry resulted in house-
keepi ng practices that were so poor
that very large quantities o f t he mai n
by- pr oduct , coal tar, cont ami nat ed
gas-works sites. Whe r e heavy fuel
oil was substituted for coal as the
feedstock for gas product i on, the s i t u -
a t i o n was even worse. In terms o f
energy-val ue, heavy fuel oil was
unrealistically underpri ced and thus
attractive for gas manufacture.
However , this meant that even
significant oil spillages and leakages
were considered trivial in economi c
terms and, because o f either ineffec-
tive or non existent envi ronment al
legislation, coupl ed wi t h ext remel y
poor management practices that had
become the hallmark of the manu-
factured-gas industry, such spillages
and leakages became the accept ed
operat i ng nor m.
Many, now- r edundant , gas-works
s i t e s have become pri me s i t e s for
r edevel opment due t o their city-
centre location. However , current
envi ronment al legislation requires
site clean-up prior to redevel opment .
Bot h the nature of the pol l ut i on and
the need t o empl oy a beni gn, b u t
effective, remedial t echnol ogy (be-
cause of the location o f such sites) have
created extensive opport uni t i es for
Anot her industry that frequently
encount ers decline is mi ni ng.
Whet her mi ni ng for metal ores,
gemst ones or coal, economi c pr o-
duct i on declines wi t h time due t o
exhaustion o f the deposit and, in the
case o f coal, due to the vagaries o f the
power - gener at i on industry.
The pri mary wastes pr oduced are
mineral wastes, frequently l ow-grade
ores in either solid or slurry form, and
mi ne-drai nage water. The f or mer
result in heaps, from whi ch n o x i o u s
leachates are pr oduced; the latter
gives rise to gross surface-water- and
sedi ment cont ami nat i on. Bi ol each-
i ng t echnol ogi es can be consi dered
either as pr oduct i on or envi r on-
ment al - pr ot ect i on- or i ent at ed t ech-
nologies. Wi t h changi ng economi es,
solid mi ne-wast es are frequent l y
bei ng reprocessed, primarily em-
pl oyi ng bioleaching, t hereby n o t
onl y provi di ng marketable products,
b u t also reduci ng t he pot ent i al for
t he f or mat i on o f noxi ous leachates
after ultimate disposal.
Mi l i tary activities as major pollution
In the maj ori t y of countries,
military activities have rarely been
subjected to stringent envi r on-
mental legislation and its enforce-
ment because o f their strategic
i mport ance. However , i n times of
relative peace in industrialized
nations, and wi t h the move towards
significant arms reductions, public
pressure is havi ng an i mpact on
r emovi ng i mmuni t y f r om envi r on-
mental responsibility from the mili-
The capacity o f t he military for
envi ronment al pol l ut i on is enor -
mous. The unsuccessful defensive
u s e o f crude oil released i nt o t he
inshore marine envi r onment pri or t o
the Gul f War in the Mi ddl e East i n
1991 is a clear example. However , it
is frequently the less obvi ous activi-
ties of t he military that have a sig-
nificant i mpact on the envi ronment :
activities such as soil pol l ut i on wi t h
explosives at ordnance facihties, t he
disposal o f unwant ed chemical
weapons, the indiscriminate use and
disposal o f solvents, and t he spillage
o f liquid fuels. In this sector, clean up
will rely significantly on devel opi ng
appropriate bi oremedi at i on t ech-
nol ogy.
T h e m i c r o b i o l o g i c a l r e s o u r c e :
n a t u r a l v s ' e n g i n e e r e d '
Successful bi oremedi at i on depends
on the availability o f appropriate
microorganisms. Al t hough it is gen-
erally agreed that mor e t han 80% o f
the total mi crobi al resource awaits
discovery, reactions medi at ed by
bot h the known and t he unknown
(i.e. populations observed t o be
effective, but uncharacterized)
portions o f the resource are already
empl oyed in bi ot reat ment and i n
Despite frequent suggestions that
genetically engi neered mi cr oor gan-
isms (GEMs) offer maj or potential
for envi ronment al clean up, the u s e
o f GEMs is likely to be ext remel y
restricted bot h i n in situ and ex situ
bi oremedi at i on for t wo reasons.
First, even wi t h their additional pat h-
ways, GEMs do not yet mat ch t he
bi odegradat i on abilities o f microbial
consortia, and second, their fas-
tidiousness precludes t hem from u s e
in all but the most highly prot ect ed
milieux. I n addition, legislation and
public pressure against t he use o f
GEMs provides yet anot her hurdle,
whi ch i nt roduces bot h cost and
delay, that must be faced by t he
3 1 9
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b i o r e me d i a t i o n i ndus t r y o n t he r oa d
t o c o mme r c i a l i z a t i o n o f this t e c h -
nol ogy.
Bi o r e me d i a t i o n : s t at us and f ut ure
d e ma n d
I n this edi t or i al , an a t t e mp t has
b e e n ma d e t o p r o v i d e a f r a me wo r k
o f c o mme n t i nt o wh i c h t he f ol l ow-
i ng ei ght articles ma y be pl aced.
Ca pl a n out l i nes t he pot e nt i a l
wo r l d wi d e ma r k e t f or b i o r e me d i -
at i on t e c h n o l o g y , whi l e Ma r k l a n d -
Da y pr ovi des a r e v i e w o f US g o v e m-
me n t pol i c y o n b i o r e me d i a t i o n
whi c h, cur r ent l y, is t he mo s t e x t e n -
si vel y est abl i shed i n t he wor l d.
Ot h e r c ount r i e s ma y wel l a d o p t
gui del i nes, us i ng and a da pt i ng t he
US e x p e r i e n c e o f a ppl yi ng b i o -
r e me d i a t i o n t e c h n o l o g y a nd i n c o r -
por a t i ng modi f i cat i ons as appr opr i at e
t o t he condi t i ons t hat are r el evant t o
t he i r o wn si t uat i on. Doubde s s ,
l egi sl at i on wo r l d wi d e wi l l evol ve in
r es pons e t o an i mp r o v e d k n o wl e d g e
o f t he feasi bi l i t y a nd pr act i cal i t y o f
par t i cul ar strategies.
T h e c o n t r i b u t i o n b y Bl a c k b u r n
and Ha f k e r pr ovi de s an i ndust ri al
per s pect i ve o f b i o r e me d i a t i o n , c o n -
si der i ng t he appl i cabi l i t y a nd p r o b -
l ems o f usi ng par t i cul ar appr oaches,
and t he fact ors - b i o c h e mi s t r y ,
bi oavai l abi l i t y and bi oact i vi t y - t hat
de t e r mi ne t he l i ke l i hood o f success.
He i t z e r a nd Sayl er p r o v i d e an
excel l ent s ur ve y o f mo n i t o r i n g
b i o r e me d i a t i o n efficacy. Such mo n i -
t o r i n g is essential, n o t o n l y f or est ab-
l i shi ng t he success or f ai l ur e o f r e -
me di a t i on at a par t i cul ar site, but i t
wi l l also yi el d val uabl e i n f o r ma t i o n
t hat can t he n be used f or i mp r o v i n g
r e me d i a t i o n strategies. T h e articles
o n t he e c o l o g y and e v o l u t i o n o f
mi c r obi a l popul at i ons , b y Li u and
Suflita, and o n p u t t i n g mi c r obi a l
me t a b o l i s m t o wo r k , b y Bo u we r and
Ze h n d e r , pr ovi de a qual i t at i ve basis
f or di scussi on o f b o t h t he pot e nt i a l
a nd l i mi t at i ons o f e xpl oi t i ng t he
me t a b o l i s m o f d y n a mi c mi c r obi a l
popul at i ons . Ga d d a nd Wh i t e e x a m-
i ne t he pot ent i al and sci ent i fi c basis
f or b i o r e me d i a t i n g me t a l pol l ut i on
and, finally, Col e emphas i zes t he
i mp o r t a n c e o f t he n i t r o g e n cycl e,
t h e r e b y r e mi n d i n g us o f t he ne e d t o
t h i n k i n t e r ms o f c o u p l e d b i o -
ge oc he mi c a l cycles, r a t he r t han c o n -
si der i ng specific cycles i n i sol at i on.
Fo r t he d e v e l o p me n t o f b i o r e -
me di a l pr ocesses t o s uc c e e d corn-
mer ci al l y, i t wi l l be essential t o l i nk
mi cr obi al e c ol ogy a nd mi cr obi al b i o -
chemi s t r y, vi a mi c r obi a l phys i ol ogy,
t o bi oc he mi c a l and bi opr oces s e ngi n-
eer i ng. At t e n t i o n needs t o be
d e v o t e d t o t he i n t e g r a t i o n o f i ndi -
vi dual c he mi c a l t r a ns f or ma t i ons i n
t he me t a b o l i s m o f mi c r obi a l cells and
cons or t i a ( r at her t ha n est abl i shi ng
ki net i cal l y ba r r e n maps o f pat hways
t hat are i r r el evant t o b i o r e me d i -
at i on) , a nd t o def i ni ng t he r a t e -
l i mi t i ng steps i n b i o r e me d i a t i o n .
Th e r e is little val ue i n e nha nc i ng t he
rates o f mi c r obi a l l y me d i a t e d r e -
act i ons i f t he over al l r e me d i a t i o n
pr ocess is cont r ol l ed b y physi cal l i mi -
t at i ons. Thus , c ons i de r a t i on o f
mi c r obi a l p h y s i o l o g y b y pr ocess
engi neer s, and o f aspects o f pract i cal
appl i cat i ons b y cell a nd mo l e c u l a r
bi ol ogi st s is essential - o n l y b y i nt e -
gr at i ng t he exper t i se o f t hese di ver se
di sci pl i nes wi l l wo r k a b l e , c o mme r -
cially vi abl e b i o r e me d i a t i o n strategies
be devi sed.
Ge of f r e y Hamer .
Department of Chemical Engineering, University
College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
Bi oremedi ati on
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