On 15 June 2015, Rutgers University announced the discovery in uranium-contaminated groundwater of bacteria that can breathe uranium and employ it in a reduction chemical reaction that immobilizes the uranium and thereby removes it from solution in the groundwater. Professor Lee Kerkhof, in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, leads the Rutgers team that is working with U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) researchers on this project.
The bacteria were discovered in soil at an old uranium ore mill site in Rifle, Colorado, almost 200 miles west of Denver. The bacteria of interest are from a common class known as betaproteobacteria.
The Rifle, CO site today. Source: news.slac.stanford.edu
The Rutgers University announcement states:
“This bacterium can breathe either oxygen or uranium to drive the chemical reactions that provide life-giving energy”.
“Exactly how the strain evolved, Kerkhof said, ‘we are not sure.’ But, he explained, bacteria have the ability to pass genes to each other. So just like bacteria pick up resistance to things like antibiotics and heavy metal toxicity, this bacterium ‘picked up a genetic element that’s now allowing it to detoxify uranium, to actually grow on uranium.’ “
You can read the Rutgers University announcement at the following link:
You can read the April 2015 Rutgers paper, Spatial Distribution of an Uranium-Respiring Betaproteobacterium at the Rifle, CO Field Research Site, at the following link:
An earlier paper published in October 2011, entitled, Influence of Uranium on Bacterial Communities: A Comparison of Natural Uranium-Rich Soils with Controls, identified Acidobacteria, Proteobacteria, and seven others phyla in uraniferous samples. This French study, supported by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, concluded that:
“…our results demonstrate that uranium exerts a permanent high pressure on soil bacterial communities and suggest the existence of a uranium redox cycle mediated by bacteria in the soil.”
You can read the paper written by the French team at the following link: