Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dirty Work

Terry Hazen laughs when he is asked whether he’s ever surprised by the microbes he has studied for 30 years. “I’m not,” he says. “I’m a firm believer in the doctrine of infallibility. What that means is there’s no compound known to man, man-made or natural, that bacteria can’t degrade.” Hazen — an environmental microbiologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley— finds and feeds microbes that degrade pollutants into harmless elements, helping clean up some of the most polluted sites on the planet. The microbes, or “bugs,” as Hazen calls them, are everywhere — in the soil, the air and the oceans, where they naturally break down everything from methane to oil to the toxic byproducts of weapons-grade plutonium. More>