Bespoke bacteria tackle poisonous organophosphates.
Bacteria could digest chemical-weapons stockpiles, say Californian chemists. Their genetically engineered bacteria might also scrub pesticides from farm equipment.
Mulchandanis team had previously given E. coli an enzyme that naturally breaks down organophosphates1, taken from wild soil microbes. Now they have fine-tuned their bacteria.
The group added a protein that binds the bacteria to cellulose, stopping them from being washed away by chemicals. Stick-on bacteria increased the degradation rate tenfold2.
They also customized the wild enzyme, organophosphorus hydrolase. By creating many slight genetic variations, the team found one form that chews up the pesticide methyl parathion 25 times faster than the original3.
"Its a cute way to solve the problem," says chemical engineer George Georgiou of the University of Texas in Austin. E. coli is cheap and efficient compared with purifying the enzyme or using the soil microbes.
In 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the nerve gas sarin - an organophosphate that cripples the central nervous system - on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people.
Some fear that organophosphates could feature in future terrorist attacks. US military researchers are therefore pursuing ways to decontaminate affected sites.
Releasing genetically modified (GM) bugs into the environment is not the solution, admits Mulchandani, because of public concern over GM organisms. Instead, researchers are exploring the use of purified forms of the enzyme, despite the additional expense.
Some of the more toxic agricultural organophosphates have already been phased out in Britain and the United States, such as methyl parathion on food that is picked by hand. This trend is likely to continue, thinks Coggon: "I think their use is likely to decline as better alternatives become available".
HELEN PEARSON | © Nature News Service
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