What happens if Conan the Bacterium infects Aquaman?
John J. Fialka has a front-pager in today’s Wall Street Journal (this link should be good for non-subscribers as well) that spurs a “Wow, this is cool” reaction in me. It’s about research into microorganisms that can not only survive in nuclear waste dumps — they thrive there: Eight years ago, scientists using a metal ...
John J. Fialka has a front-pager in today's Wall Street Journal (this link should be good for non-subscribers as well) that spurs a "Wow, this is cool" reaction in me. It's about research into microorganisms that can not only survive in nuclear waste dumps -- they thrive there:
John J. Fialka has a front-pager in today’s Wall Street Journal (this link should be good for non-subscribers as well) that spurs a “Wow, this is cool” reaction in me. It’s about research into microorganisms that can not only survive in nuclear waste dumps — they thrive there:
Eight years ago, scientists using a metal rod here to probe the radioactive depths of a nuclear-waste tank saw something that shocked them: a slimy, transparent substance growing on the end of the rod. They took the specimen into a concrete-lined vault where technicians peered through a 3-foot-thick window and, using robot arms, smeared a bit of the specimen into a petri dish. Inside the dish they later found a colony of strange orange bacteria swimming around. The bacteria had adapted to 15 times the dose of radiation that it takes to kill a human being. They lived in what one scientific paper calls a “witches’ brew” of toxic chemicals. It was a step forward for the U.S. Department of Energy, which has been looking for a few good bugs — in particular, members of an emerging family of microbes that scientists call “extremophiles.” These microbes can survive in some of Earth’s most inhospitable environments, withstanding enormous doses of radiation, thriving at temperatures above boiling, and mingling with toxic chemicals that would kill almost anything else. That makes them a potentially valuable tool in the Energy Department’s effort to clean up vast amounts of nuclear waste, including the Savannah River Site near Augusta, Ga., and the Hanford Site near Richland, Wash. The department says it could cost as much as $260 billion to clean up its messes with conventional methods, which rely heavily on chemical treatment and robots. Using extremophiles could slash that bill…. Scientists know of at least a dozen extremophiles. The first was discovered in 1956 in Corvallis, Ore. Scientists were zapping cans of horse meat with high radiation, trying to establish the preservative value of food irradiation. One can developed an ominous bulge. Inside, the scientists isolated pink bacteria they had never seen before. They gave it the scientific name Deinococcus radiodurans. But researchers were so amazed by the bug’s resilience that some years later, they nicknamed it “Conan the Bacterium,” spawning a folklore and debate among scientists that continues today. Because the microbes endure radiation at levels higher than any natural source, some scientists have argued that they must have ridden in on comets. Others speculate that they were the Earth’s first residents after the planet was born in a radioactive explosion. The original Conan proved to be a wimp among extremophiles. It could handle radiation, but not the solvent toluene and other chemicals normally found in bomb makers’ wastes. So, in 1997, the Energy Department started work on a genetically manipulated bug that researchers called Super Conan. Super Conan now lives in a petri dish at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a U.S. military research facility in Bethesda, Md. It can handle nasty chemicals as well as radiation, but the researcher who developed it, Michael J. Daly, says the government is afraid to let it out. “We’re at a point where we could do some field trials,” he says, adding that his sponsors at the Energy Department doubt the public is ready for the release of this laboratory-engineered bug into the environment. It might eat nuclear wastes, but they worry about what else might it do, he says. Rather than confront such touchy matters, the department is confident it can find Super Conan’s equivalent in nature, says Ari Patrinos, the department’s director of biological and environmental research. He estimates that fewer than 1% of the Earth’s bacteria forms have been identified: “There are plenty out there for our needs. We just have to pick and choose.” (emphasis added)
I will confess that the bolded section was my second reaction when reading the headline. I immediately flashed back to when I would watch Superfriends on Saturday mornings. Inevitably Aquaman would experience some “freak genetic mutation” and turn into some giant pissed-off fish that wreaked havoc on the high seas until Superman finally gave him the antidote. It was always a nuisance. [Er, but these extremophiles would prevent this from happening — so why did you think of Aquaman?–ed. I didn’t say I was following a rational chain of logic here. I was describing gut instinct.]
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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