Bacteria Engineered to Destroy Pollutants

  • Justin Gallivan and his team programmed a type of E. coli bacteria to seek out atrazine in a petri dish, and destroy it, but right now the bacteria is too weak to survive in the wild. (Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)

Scientists have engineered bacteria to seek out and destroy a chemical that pollutes drinking water. Rebecca Williams has more:

Transcript

Scientists have engineered bacteria to seek out and destroy a chemical that pollutes drinking water. Rebecca Williams has more:

Atrazine is a pesticide used on corn, sorghum and sugar cane. It’s one of the most common chemicals polluting water supplies in the US.

Justin Gallivan is a chemist at Emory University. His team genetically engineered a type of E. coli bacteria. They programmed it to seek out atrazine in a petri dish… and destroy it.

He says right now, this engineered bacteria is too weak to survive in the wild.

“It requires quite a bit of care and feeding, as you might say, to survive even in a petri dish. So if it were placed in a more harsh environment, it is extremely likely that these types of organisms would not survive.”

He says using this kind of genetically engineered bacteria to clean up pollution is still a long way off.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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Genetically Engineered Crops in Your Stuff

  • The USDA reports, this past year, 85% of the corn crops planted were genetically altered. (Photo courtesy of the National Cancer Institute)

The soda-pop you drink, the
t-shirt you wear, the cooking
oil you use – all might contain
genetically engineered material.
Lester Graham reports on a
continuing trend in agriculture:

Transcript

The soda-pop you drink, the
t-shirt you wear, the cooking
oil you use – all might contain
genetically engineered material.
Lester Graham reports on a
continuing trend in agriculture:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, this past year, 88% of cotton, 91% of soybeans and 85% of the corn crops planted were genetically altered.

That means corn syrup, cotton cloth, and hydrogenated soybean oil are all more than likely are from genetically engineered crops.

Margaret Mellon is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says farmers might embrace them, but genetically engineered crops have not really advanced American agriculture that much.

“I’m not saying there are not benefits, but they’re really modest. In particular, I think it’s important to note that it really hasn’t had an impact on yield – which is what we need if we’re going to increase the amount of food in the world and feed more people.”

The makers of genetically engineered seeds, companies such as Monsanto, say their crops do increase yields by stopping weeds and insect damage. The big bio-tech companies say their crops save farmers money, mean fewer harmful pesticides and reduce soil erosion.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Nuclear Careers to Heat Up?

  • Until recently, there hasn’t been an order for a new nuclear plant in 30 years. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Some Senate Republicans want the climate
change bill to focus on building new nuclear
power plants. They’re calling for as many as
100 new plants in 20 years. But the industry
has been in decline for so many years now,
there’s concern there might not be enough
nuclear engineers to do the job. Julie Grant
reports:

Transcript

Some Senate Republicans want the climate
change bill to focus on building new nuclear
power plants. They’re calling for as many as
100 new plants in 20 years. But the industry
has been in decline for so many years now,
there’s concern there might not be enough
nuclear engineers to do the job. Julie Grant
reports:

There’s a lot of new interest in nuclear energy and technology these days. But there’s a problem.

The American Nuclear Society estimates they need 700 new nuclear engineers per year to keep up with growing the demand. It’s enough to give long-time nuclear supporters whip-lash. Until recently, things looked gloomy for the nuclear industry.

William Martin is chair of the nuclear engineering department at the University of Michigan. Ten years ago, he says no new plants were being designed or built. And he was having a tough time finding students.

“A student entering the field, what you could tell them was, ‘well, there’s a big focus on waste.’ That’s not hardly something that excites young students to enter the field.”

Martin remembers standing on the stage at graduation in the mid 1990s to call the names of his graduates. Other engineering departments had so many students, it took an hour to call them all. But Martin only had a few names to call.

“Our students trip across in about ten seconds.”

Lots of nuclear engineering programs didn’t make it through the down times. There are less than half the university programs today than there were 30 years ago.

Nuclear got a bad name starting in 1979 – with the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. That was followed by the deadly nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine in the ‘80s.
By the early 1990s, President Clinton announced he would eliminate funding for nuclear power research and development.

Until recently, there hasn’t been an order for a new nuclear plant in 30 years.

Vaughn Gilbert is spokesman for Westinghouse Electric Company, which focuses on nuclear energy.


He says Westinghouse laid off a lot its engineers in the down years. A decade ago, those who were left were heading toward retirement. So, Gilbert says, the company started working with universities to train engineering students to run its aging nuclear plants.

“Simply because we knew we would need to attract new people to maintain the existing fleet and then also to work with our customers to decommission the plants as they came offline.”

Westinghouse and other nuclear companies started giving lots of money to maintain university programs.

And then, everyone started worrying about climate change – and looking for ways to make energy that wouldn’t create more greenhouse gases. Nuclear power has started making a comeback.

Gilbert says new plants are in the works again – and Westinghouse needs engineers. The company’s designs will be used in six new U.S. plants.

The timing is pretty good for 25 year old Nick Touran. He’s a PhD student in nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan. He knows there’s a negative stigma to nuclear power – because he’s asked people about it.

“I just say, ‘so what do you think about nuclear power?’ Just to passersby on the street. And one person said, ‘I only think one thing – no, no, no, no, no.’”

But Touran says the negative stuff mostly comes from older people. When Three Mile Island melted-down, Touran wasn’t even born yet. He says most people his age are much more accepting of nuclear power.

“It’s the people who remember Three Mile Island and remember Chernobyl and remember World War II, who have all these very negative associations with nuclear weapons and Soviet reactors that were built incredibly wrong. And stuff like that.”

Touran says much of his generation just sees a power source that doesn’t create greenhouse gases.

Of course, there are greenhouse gases created in the process of manufacturing nuclear fuel rods. And then there’s that pesky problem of that spent nuclear waste. There’s still no permanent place to dump it.

Touran says he started studying nuclear power because he was amazed by it. But as the number of students in his department grows, he says more are choosing nuclear because it’s a smart career choice.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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