Photo copyright University of Georgia

A discovery made by researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) could prove tremendously useful in certain industrial processes and give environmental protection efforts a boost. The discovery in question involves bacteria that survive by breathing poisonous elements.

The UGA research team found this organism during a field expedition to Mono Lake in California. The bacteria live deep in the mud along the lake banks and breathe elements that are toxic to people, a particular favorite being arsenic. According to the UGA researchers, these abilities could prove invaluable and a couple of examples illustrate the potential.

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With regard to industrial production, these bacteria could help convert antimony into antimony trioxide, which is widely used in making plastics, vulcanized rubber, flame retardants and various electronic components such as solar cells and LEDs. However, traditional conversion methods are often accompanied by the creation of harmful byproducts, not to mention that they can also be costly and time-consuming. With the newly discovered bacterium, the natural respiratory process produces two kinds of crystalline antimony trioxide of high purity. Not only are they superior in quality to industrially produced crystals but they also have the advantage of being delivered without any toxic byproducts in tow.

The bacteria also hold great potential for wastewater cleaning. The UGA researchers have found that different enzymes in the organism make it capable of removing pollutants such as selenium and tellurium. These highly toxic elements build up in wastewater pools near mines and refineries, posing a significant danger to surrounding ecosystems.