Microbial bioremediation leverages microbial metabolism to remove xenobiotics or other pollutants. Xenobiotics are compounds synthesized by humans and introduced into the environment in much higher concentrations than would naturally occur. Such environmental contamination may involve adhesives, dyes, flame retardants, lubricants, oil and petroleum products, organic solvents, pesticides, and products of the combustion of gasoline and oil. Many xenobiotics resist breakdown, and some accumulate in the food chain after being consumed or absorbed by fish and wildlife, which, in turn, may be eaten by humans. Of particular concern are contaminants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), a carcinogenic xenobiotic found in crude oil, and trichloroethylene (TCE), a common groundwater contaminant.
Bioremediation processes can be categorized as in situ or ex situ. Bioremediation conducted at the site of contamination is called in situ bioremediation and does not involve movement of contaminated material. In contrast, ex situ bioremediation involves the removal of contaminated material from the original site so that it can be treated elsewhere, typically in a large, lined pit where conditions are optimized for degradation of the contaminant.
Some bioremediation processes rely on microorganisms that are indigenous to the contaminated site or material. Enhanced bioremediation techniques, which may be applied to either in situ or ex situ processing, involve the addition of nutrients and/or air to encourage the growth of pollution-degrading microbes; they may also involve the addition of non-native microbes known for their ability to degrade contaminants. For example, certain bacteria of the genera Rhodococcus and Pseudomonas are known for their ability to degrade many environmental contaminants, including aromatic compounds like those found in oil, down to CO2. The genes encoding their degradatory enzymes are commonly found on plasmids. Others, like Alcanivorax borkumensis, produce surfactants that are useful in the solubilization of the hydrophobic molecules found in oil, making them more accessible to other microbes for degradation.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology