From the blog

Marine Bacteria Could Potentially Detoxify Asbestos

Published: July 28, 2023

There may be a new way to detoxify asbestos. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science are using bacteria from extreme marine environments. They are using a technique called bioremediation, which is a form of biotechnology that uses living organisms to remove toxins or contaminants from the environment. This technique has been used in the past to try to detoxify asbestos using soil bacteria and fungi, but they were not very useful. Researchers decided on the marine microbes because they use inorganic compounds and interact with minerals in their natural environment. The researchers are using two species of bacteria including Deferrisoma palaeochoriense and Thermovibrio ammonificans. Researchers are trying to counteract the iron content and fibrous structure of asbestos fibers.

The researchers incubated the microbes for seven days at 140- or 167-degrees Fahrenheit, which is the ideal temperature for the bacteria species. The bottles containing the bacteria also contained asbestos. The researchers monitored the samples for cell growth or changes to chemical composition or mineral structure. D. palaeochoriense removed some iron, but the fibrous structure stayed the same. The goal is to break the mineral down to take away its structure. The second bacteria, T. ammonificans, disrupted the structure of serpentine asbestos fibers. It accumulated silicon from the fibers, whose structure can be disrupted by removing silicon. The authors of the study believe that microbes are a better option for rendering asbestos fibers unharmful because alternatives include very high temperatures or very strong acids. The next step would be to do more studies to see if the microbes work on a larger scale.

Asbestos is a dangerous mineral that can easily cause cancer. It was mainly used for its heat and fire-resistant properties. Many people were exposed to asbestos through different jobsites including steel mills, power plants, shipyards, construction, etc. Once inhaled, the fibers become lodged in human tissue like the lungs, pleura (mesothelium that covers the lungs), and peritoneum (mesothelium that covers the abdomen). Over time, the fibers cause inflammation and DNA changes in cells, turning them into cancer cells. Once the cancer cells grow and spread, it is hard to stop their growth. Mesothelioma is a very aggressive cancer with no cure. Treatments are available that can help slow growth and improve symptoms, but there is still no definitive way to prevent mesothelioma.

Joanna Urban, “Heat-Loving Marine Bacteria Can Help Detoxify Asbestos” American Society for Microbiology (May 15, 2023). [Link]
Liana F. Wait, “Using marine bacteria to detoxify asbestos” Penn Today (July 6, 2023). [Link]
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