Pollutant-Chomping Bacterium Cleans Up Contaminated Sites

A pollutant-munching bacterium is earning plaudits in Fairfield, N.J., where the U.S. EPA has been using it to clean up a Superfund site contaminated with poison-laced sewage. The mysterious little bacterium, with the unwieldy name of Dehalococcoides ethenogenes, was discovered in 1997 by scientists at Cornell University who determined that it likes to gobble up dangerous industrial chemicals. “They’re really weird organisms,” said Stephen Zinder, chair of Cornell’s microbiology department. The bugs seem to be much more effective at dealing with contamination than the traditional pump-and-treat method, which pumps water to the surface in hopes of then removing pollutants. The process of using bacteria to decontaminate sites, called bioremediation, has also been successfully tested in California, Delaware, Texas, and other states. So far, scientists see no ill effects from introducing the bacteria into groundwater.