In The Field

ASM 2008: Yum… mercury

Two researchers from the University of Colorado in Denver, Munira Albuthi and Timberley Roane, are proposing an unusual use for an unusual bacterium: detoxifying Native American artifacts.

The bacterium is Cupriavidus metallidurans CH34 (the bacterium formerly known as Ralstonia metallidurans CH34, for those of you keeping track). C. metallidurans has an unusual ability to flourish around heavy metals at concentrations that would normally be lethal. (The critter was first isolated from the sludge of a Belgium zinc decantation tank, according to the Joint Genomes Institute.)

Now, Albuthi and Roane hope to use the bacterium to decontaminate Native American artifacts. The artifacts were once collected by museums, but have since been returned to Native American tribes. Unfortunately, before they were returned, the artifacts were treated with a mercury-containing pesticide for preservation. The mercury poses a health hazard, and Albuthi and Roane hope to spray down the artifacts with C. metallidurans, which is able to detoxify the mercury. So far, they’re just in preliminary stages of testing, but the bacterium was able to remove 60% of the mercury from a mercury-soaked piece of paper.

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