I come from Ecuador, we are a nation who cherish our natural resources and we proudly claim part of the Amazon rainforest. Whilst my country cannot claim to be a world leader in biotechnological development such as bioremediation, we are gaining ground on our contribution to protect our own resources, ecosystems and reduce the worrying human effects of industrial development. Due my patriotism, I wanted to investigate the use of bioremediation in my home country in the hope that one day I will be able to contribute to look after our wonderful planet.
How do you feel when you look at the above picture? Scared? Terrified? Does it bear resemblance to any petrol plants you may have seen on planet earth? You may recognise it from the fictional world of middle-earth in the movie Lord of the Rings, in which Mordor, (pictured above) is depicted as a devastated, dark land without any green areas, where everything is polluted and subjected to the control of the evil villain, Sauron. A scary thought that each day we are arguably becoming closer and closer to this becoming a wide spread reality across the world due to our human demands.
Chevron’s dirty hand
Of course, the modern day Sauron is different depending on each individual’s point of view. Personally, being mestizo, (a mix of indigenous and Spanish descent,) and from the “middle of the world” in Quito, my Sauron is Chevron. Now, finding petroleum in your backyard must mean that all Amazonian tribes have hit the jackpot, but if an international petroleum company is the one breaking their garden fence to extract and sell it, you can understand why it has provoked a sentiment of exploitation and injustice amongst indigenous Ecuadorian people.
Chevron is an American state company which specializes in the exploitation of fossil fuels and several environmental organizations believe that this company has had the largest pollution in the history of the world. In 1972, it began its exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and during its stay in the middle of the world, 1.5 million barrels of oil were extracted from the Ecuadorian Amazon, during the process it poured 19 million gallons of waste into the region and spilled 17 million gallons of oil.
The company withdrew activity in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest in 1992 and the government of Correa ordered Chevron to clean the impacted region, following a controversial and international court battle between Ecuador and USA, and deemed them responsible for the damage caused by the 19 million gallons of waste. The compensation was demanded by the Ecuadorian government due to the impact on not only human communities and endemic species of the rainforest but also on behalf of the planet itself, a devastating contribution to climate change. As expected, the United States courts refused to judge one of their companies for such a deadly cause in the Amazon. It’s been 27 years since Chevron withdrew from the Amazon rainforest, to date 820 perforated pools and damages have been found in the richest and most complex tropical forest in the world and have resulted in the displacement of native communities. They have been denied their homes, having lived for more than 10,000 years and known as the ancestral guardians of the biological heritage of this region.
Luckily the Sapara and Kichwa tribes declared victory and conservation over their territories know as Block 79 in October 2019, against Andes Petroleum and their joint venture with the Chinese giant CNCP (China National Petroleum Company).
But is it right that these native people should have to fight to stop gigantic trespassers?
The impact of Chevron in the Ecuador, (a country which represents one fifth of South America’s oil production and is the eighth most biodiverse nation in the world,) is just one example of petroleum hydrocarbon pollution and its devastating effects. Companies such as Chevron and their governments are fully aware of the impact that the petroleum hydrocarbons created by their activities, such as oil spillages upon the species of the ecosystems, yet ignorance continues to prevail. Whilst they could collaborate with governments to restrict their activities and fund bioremediation in already contaminated areas, this remains a secondary priority to their ploy to extract as much crude oil as possible.
The bright ray of glistening hope in this situation is the impact and increase in use of bioremediation deployed in the use of microorganisms. It is the key to biodegrade petroleum hydrocarbons produced by oil companies, and they can be designed to work in situ or ex situ. The major micro-organisms for petroleum hydrocarbon bioremediation are fungi and bacteria, but research into which are most effective remains to be carried out.
In situ refers to when the treatment is carried out at the site of origin of the toxic contaminant for instance. There will be waters that are contaminated, instead of removing them from the site of origin they are treated in the natural place. An advantage of this process is that it is the cheaper of the two options.
Ex situ refers to when the toxic material is transferred to an external area from the point of origin. For example, if a type of water is contaminated, it should be moved to a treatment plant where bioremediation is practiced. The advantage of this system is that it is more thorough, effective and efficient bioremediation as you can control the conditions to enhance the bioremediation.
So this should surely solve the problem, no? Unfortunately, recent research has shown that due to bio-augmentation where conditions in the environment are not stable, in other words, in situ bioremediation is not constant, we cannot rely on this process to combat the effects of petroleum hydrocarbons in the damaged ecosystems. However, when using ex situ bioremediation, whilst artificial conditions can be made to degrade the petroleum hydrocarbons, it can be claimed that it is an unrealistic (in terms of cost) and a limited form of bioremediation as replicating these conditions in the field is uncontrollable. Transporting just one small sample to “clean” using ex situ bioremediation will not solve the enormity of this problem.
Maybe we should turn to the form of bio-stimulation as a form of bioremediation in order to clean the damaged ecosystems. In the environment organisms can naturally recover from damage over a long period of time using bio-stimulation as microorganisms (fungi’s or bacteria) are injected into the damaged site and can enable the environment to recover over many years. However this is not compatible with the rate of damaged caused to the ecosystems and more research is needed to discover which consortium of microorganisms will accelerate the process equivalent to the damage caused.
As described in my previous posts, the terrifying disasters caused by human ambition (ranging from petroleum production to over population) and their impact on natural resources such as water, air and agricultural areas causes huge risk to the survival of the human population due to famine. Whilst bioremediation is one of the alternatives to decontaminate part of the damage caused in natural environments, hydroponics are a method of crop production which neither use pesticides nor soil as a substrate.
Before talking about this innovative system that is already underway and increasingly developing more and more, we should know that this project was already used by different ancient civilizations, some of which we are already aware of, we just never considered them as examples of hydroponics. The most well known would probably be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or that the floating gardens of the Aztecs in Xochimilco. So when these civilisations were confronted with natural disasters such as floods, their crop yield was able to withstand these pressures and supplied the populations with necessary food, however flooding was not to the scale that we now face as a result of climate change. Ultimately it was the Ancient Greeks who defined hydroponics as aquatic work.
In 1865 and 1895 the German Von Sachs and Knop discovered that plants need certain nutritional elements to develop without the need for soil; this was supported by the American Gericke during World War II, who was able to supply fresh vegetables using hydroponic systems.
In my previous posts I mentioned about the reduction of land which is fit to be used for agricultural purpose as a product of pollution, mainly due to fossil fuel production. In the same way, the uncontrolled spread of urban areas has also decreased the amount of fertile land available to dedicate to food production registered as arable or agricultural land. According to the FAO, in 2050 the world population will increase to 10 billion of which 70% of people will live in urban areas. Whilst clearly land cannot be preserved over a need for housing a growing population, the CO2 and waste generated in these urban areas can be used to cultivate plants using the hydroponic method.
The sutrates to choose are within two large groups:
Substrates with high cation exchange capacity (CIC) are more stable in the face of variations in the hydric potential (pH) and the electrical conductivity of the nutritive solution (EC), for example peat, coconut fibre, vermiculite.
Benefits of this floorless system:
Food yield would increase from 3 to 10 times in a space reduced to arable soil, and with a growth rate that would double the development of a plant in soil, therefore harvest time is reduced and the final product has an increased nutritional value. Since no soil is needed they can be developed in a controlled environment such as in interiors of buildings where the weather would not be a determining factor in the rate of food production, water can be used up to 90% more efficiently in a well-managed hydroponic system, no weed or pest control chemicals are needed.
This achievement will require a lot of collaboration of knowledge of technology, architecture, engineering, agriculture, water, waste, science, among others. An excellent example of this is the Swedish company Plantagon which initiated a project in Linköping in 2009 and still developing their hydroponic infrastructure to build the first city which holds a symbiotic system combining municipal infrastructure such as cooling, heating, bio-gas, waste, water and energy with food production.
This company, apart from producing food in buildings, promises that it will turn its buildings into the lungs of the cities, (the Amazon’s current purpose,) by making use of CO2 emanating from the city to include food growth and returning pure air to its inhabitants.
The Plantagon company has specialised in the infrastructure of vertical vegetable agriculture in urban areas. With the help of several partners such as Sweco, Plantagon plans to develop solutions for the benefit of energy waste, excess heat, CO2, waste and water. With this greenhouse of the future, Plantagon would be able to create an International Center of Excellence for Urban Agriculture in Linköping and provide food for its population not just by making use of the land (as this is dedicated to buildings), but literally making use of the buildings.
Their idea is fascinating and proposes a marvellous solution, but it will take years to create. It is necessary to find or develop such a solution at a similar rate to which fertilised land is disappearing if food is not to be scarce. Hydroponics proposes a solution to the centuries of problems as sung by John Lenon, “imagine no possessions (…) no need for greed or hunger”. Thanks to the leading example of Plantagon, it is in the hands of the world’s leaders.
Why is Father Christmas red? Why do we use Fir trees for Christmas trees? Why do we give oranges to good children or coal to bad ones in their stockings? There are many mythical answers to these questions be it the latest Sainsbury’s advert, the institution that is Coca Cola or the old wives tales passed down from generation to generation. Whilst we are fixated on questioning the appearance of fictional festive characters, our curious nature has completely overlooked the food that we put into our bodies. For example, only 300 years ago carrots were white, but the Dutch selectively cultivated orange carrots as tribute to their monarchical dynasty (the House of Orange), making them the sweet juicy root vegetables they are today. Another example would be potatoes, which were originally poisonous and wheat was only a grass of spiny appearance all thanks to manipulation of genotypic and phenotypic characteristics of an organism.
Just like the tale of how Father Christmas became red, the terms “transgenesis” or “transgenic foods” have been modified in our everyday language provoking connotations of unnecessary scientific interference and mistrust of the general public in the consumption of genetically manipulated foods. There are social debates with conflicting arguments, which have become a topic of public interest debates that are often backed with limited knowledge about this technology used in crops. This fact has generated doubts and concerns in consumers and to prevent any risk that may arise when modifying an organism, laws have been established by different governments that clarify what kind of products should be strictly distributed and marketed.
Due to our abundance of food in Western Europe we are preoccupied with the idea that genetically modified foods might be bad for our health, however we fail to recognise the benefit of using these transgenic foods to satisfy global challenges such as famine and malnutrition. The genetically modified foods can be constructed in order to withstand extreme weather conditions provoked by climate change, such as flooding, droughts and high winds, which are the primary causes of famine. The role of transgenic foods can also be used to counter act the impact of pests or plagues, again producing more food to feed the ever growing population.
According to FAO,it is estimated that by 2020 there will be 8000 million people per food, of which 840 million will not have access to food nor clean running water.Arguably, regardless of human activity fertile land will continue to suffer natural disasters, but since humans are responsible for the impact of climate change it is also our responsibility to counteract the increasing impact.
But what is the GMO?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is simply an organism, like any other, that produces thousands of proteins, but one or two of them are specifically selected by humans. The genetic modification process produces transgenic plants, (whose DNA is genetically modified to give it a new and useful characteristic, such as withstanding plagues, such a process has a relatively short history of around 30 years. GM allows the introduction and functional expression of foreign genes in plant cells and has been used in the introduction of drugs such as insulin and in the cheese production process.
TB (traditional reproduction) VS GM (Genetically modified)
On one hand, the use of traditional or conventional breeding is where a large amount of DNA is introduced or exchanged to produce resistance to dissemination. It must be noted that ideally DNA should only come from closely related species and reproduction mutation approaches are very common. On the other hand, GM uses a small amount of DNA which is well characterized and requires a process of transformation and tissue culture from exogenous sources. The key difference between conventional breeding and GM is that in GM DNA comes from any source (different organism) which is responsible for worrying the general public when used in foods.
The different processes to achieve a transgenic organisms have the same purpose of inserting genes of interest in the DNA of plants in order to obtain proteins of interest. Among the best known techniques are the “Gen Gun” (particle method) and the Agrobacterium method (use of bacteria) which causes tumours in plants.
The Gen gun
It is used to modify crops, the principle of this technique is that the genes of interest are precipitated by using gas pressure like heliun, with gold or tugsten microparticles forming metallic microbolites coated with the transgene, with which they are then bombarded vegetables (leaves, protoplasts). Consequently the transformed cells are selected in a medium that contains antibiotics so the new cells will grow with the included transgene and those that do not contain a transgene will die. It is a system that has been used in the production of wheat, sugar cane corn, papaya, soy or tobacco.
This method is the most commonly used, agrobacterium tumefaciensis used as a vector to transfer DNA into plan cells, naturally this type of bacteria T-DNA genes encode plant growth hormones and cause the production of a plant tumour called a crown gall disease.
Agrobacterium transfer DNA into plant cells in order to produce nutrients they need. Scientists have modified this bacteria in order to introduce proteins of interest by introducing genes of interest. Agrobacterium cell contents plasmid, this plasmid has a particular region which is T-DNA after this T-DNA is transferred into a plan to produce proteins of interest by humans and finally the new gene is incorporated in the new DNA of plan cells, and therefore we can get plants with genetic improvements, such as resistance to pests, better nutritional value, higher yield.
It is necessary to be aware of the risks of eating transgenic crops and such a high interference into natural production for obvious ethical reasons. Although since we have changed the course of our planet due to our human activity and global warming, we should be aware of the scientific advances which have the potential to solve the issues we have created whose plight is suffered outside of our European bubble.
I had the opportunity to visit Incinerox company in 2014 with the University of Salesiana, Quito in Ecuador, a national reputable company, for eliminating or reducing toxicity through incineration. Incinerox company in charge of the treatment of hazardous waste since 2000 that uses incineration machinery with a capacity of up to 12 tons of toxic products, and those machineries need a source of energy in order to reach a temperature between 3500 and 4000 Kcal / Kg for contaminated products “everything that goes in comes out in ashes”, the gases caused by the Combustion first pass through an activated carbon filter and bag filter for purification therefore before being released into the atmosphere. Please view the below video in order to clarify the process of incineration.
However, whilst this may seem to be an effective solution on the surface, I was intrigued to see the nature of firms conducting bioremediation under European legislation, one organisation that stood out was MicroGen Biotech in the Republic of Ireland. When compared to MicroGen Biotech, the 2 companies have the same goal of treating hydrocarbons and other toxic agents for the environment. On the one hand MicroGen Biotech uses microorganisms with a slow process for bioremediation and on the other Incinerox uses energy sources for its huge incineration furnaces but with they are effective and quick elimination of toxic products.
Unlike Incinerox, Dr. Xuemei Germaine 7 years ago (2012) establishes a more ecological and nature-friendly process where it is based on the alternative use of chemicals and incinerations, the method upon which he to found his MicroGen Biotech company with the aim of using microorganisms in soils contaminated by hydrocarbons and other toxic xenobiotics. Three years later (2015) the Irish government is interested in MicroGen Biotech and invests funds to cover its projects. Today MicroGen Biotech is one of the leaders that leads the market in bioremediation.
One of its largest projects was carried out in Ireland where, after the economic crisis and the industry fell between the 70s and 80s, these lands were abandoned and accumulated of toxic materials such as hydrocarbons (brownfield) and were unable to be used. Similarly to the process MicroGen adopted in Ireland, MicroGen Biotech has been established in China’s largest oil fields, with the purpose of cleaning toxic products such as PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons), and China being a quarter of the world’s largest BRIC economy can covert this process to a mass scale operation. MicroGen Biotech products have been a success both in Ireland and in China, they have been in charge of contaminated hydrocarbon soils where they analysed the predominant contaminate in the soil, take samples and perform ex-situ tests, controlling the artificial environment so that it becomes equal. natural, adding essential nutrients so that the consortia of microorganisms patented by MicroGen Biotech develop their exponential and stationary phase in order to biodegrade the contaminant. The results are eminent, the soil pH is analysed as well as the number of viable microbial populations. When it is known which microorganism is the most efficient, it is produced on large scales to be taken in-situ or to the source of contamination, then 18 months can reduce a contaminate from a concentration of 10,000 ppm to 50 ppm.
This bioremediation system could be available to all sectors affected by pollutants that have accumulated in soils and water. Being living organisms, its metabolism system is slow, which could modify its rate of absorption using different branches of the technological sciences, one of which could be CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a bacteria which can change the structure of the genes of an organism, allowing bioremediation.
Which decontamination process would you prefer a fast, efficient but with use of electricity, energy and gas emission, ultimately leading to an evitable cease of business under European legislation, or a slow process where it involves microorganisms that can produce gas or water as by-products and consequently ensures a company’s longevity in today’s economy?
Keep reading my future blogs to see the variety and developments in the field of bioremediation.