The world is awash in antibiotics. We take them to fight off the bacteria that mean to colonize us. We feed them to animals to prevent the outbreak of disease in densely packed factory-farming operations. Even many of our cleaning and body care products, controversially, now contain them.
But many antibiotics don’t get fully metabolized within humans or animals and, through excretion, find their way into waste and surface waters. It’s a major environmental concern whose full ecological implications still aren’t clear.
And the problem creates a vicious cycle. Evolution gives our microbial adversaries the strategic advantage—the ability to adapt to our weapons and render them harmless. So we engage in a microscopic arms race, battering increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant bugs with more and more drug compounds to keep them at bay.
So you could call it a small case of poetic justice when researchers figure out how to use the cellular machinery that renders some bacteria drug-resistant to reclaim antibiotics from contaminated water.
For those working to clean up some of the worst water pollutants on Earth, gold and palladium might be getting considerably more precious.
Rice University researchers have been working with the metals for a decade to figure out a way to efficiently destroy complex chemical pollutants. They have announced that the fruit of their labor is a technology called PGClear that they say can quickly decontaminate groundwater. Scientists from Rice, Stanford University and DuPont collaborated on the work, which will first be installed in June at a DuPont plant in Kentucky.
At its heart, the system uses pellets formed from a combination of the two metals. The pellets act as a catalyst to break down persistent cancer-causing industrial solvents like vinyl chloride, trichloroethene and chloroform into nontoxic methane and salt byproducts.
In Florida, it’s already time to strap a swimsuit on and hit the beach. For the rest of the country, balmy days and cooling dips are just around the corner.
For those who love the water, an advanced and rapid test developed by the EPA offers some piece of mind that they won’t be diving into polluted water off the nation’s beaches. The technique can report within four hours if bacteria are present in salt or fresh water at levels that require beach closures, a significant improvement over the full day present methods take.
“We have found very high variation in the amount of bacteria present in recreational waters from day to day,” says Meredith Nevers, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who verified the new test’s efficacy. “The standard test takes a sample on a day when everyone might be swimming in contaminated water. The results come back the next day and they close the beach, when the problem might have already cleared up.”