It’s no secret that humans have had an enormous impact on the world’s water supply. If we look at lakes, rivers, or shores that humans live near, chances are we will find a significant quantity of litter scattered in the area. According to Clean Water Action, these water pollutants have impacted 43 percent of all marine mammal species.
This doesn’t even take into consideration the pollutants that we can’t see. The Mussel Watch Program investigates what kind of invisible contaminants are present in coastal areas through studying local mussels.
Mussels don’t have a liver to break down foreign materials, so whatever they ingest is concentrated in their bodies, revealing an accurate picture of what’s in the environment. So far, they have found banned chemicals, antibiotics, SSRI drugs, and cancer drugs. Luckily, we have microscopic allies that are helping us combat our water pollution problem: bacteria.
In August of 2018, a team of microbiologists from Washington State University discovered remarkable bacteria that eat pollution and produce electricity. The team, led by Abdelrhman Mohamed, made the seven-mile trek through Yellowstone National Park’s Heart Lake Geyser Basin, an area that boasts the homes of this singular bacteria: pools of extremely hot water that ranged between 110 and nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mohamed and his team went through a difficult 32-day process to extract the microbes from such an extreme environment, but eventually, they succeeded in capturing the bacteria in their natural and optimum habitat.
The bacteria have wire-like hairs that are used for passing electrons to outside metals or minerals. This is why the bacteria were attracted to the solid carbon surface of the electrodes. As the bacteria exchange electrons, they “breathe” a stream of electricity—electricity that could one day be harnessed for low-power applications.
This energy-breathing, pollution-consuming microorganisms join other promising organic solutions to water contamination such as the super-enzyme that can break down plastic bottles, or the bacteria-filled robot that paddles over water and funnels waste and pollution into its “stomach” to be decomposed.
As we continue to understand the depth of our impact on our environment, learning more about how these microscopic organisms can help improve the damage we’ve done sparks hope for a more eco-friendly future.