The invisible clean-up crew: Engineering microbial cultures to destroy pollutants

U of T engineering professor Elizabeth Edwards is internationally recognized for using biotechnology to clean up industrial solvents in soil and groundwater. Her technique earned her the prestigious Killam Prize in 2016 and has already been used to restore more than 500 sites around the world.

One way to decontaminate industrial sites involves digging up the soil, but this costly technique is impractical once solvents have seeped into groundwater. At some sites,
Edwards noticed that anaerobic microbes – bacteria that live without oxygen – were breaking down the solvents naturally. But no one understood how.

After sequencing their DNA, Edwards discovered that different microbe species collaborate to break solvents down in stages. She and her colleagues grew a culture of these microbes, pumped them into contaminated groundwater and proved they could clean it up inexpensively, effectively and safely. These invisible allies can also be used to create biodegradable plastics and even capture energy from waste. As Edwards says, we’ve only just begun exploring “the enormous, untapped potential of anaerobic microbes.”

Edwards spoke with U of T’s Tyler Irving about her research. Read full interview.