Genomic research will enable greener cleanup of military explosive test sites

Vancouver, BC (Nov. 4, 2009)- Lowly bacteria, it turns out, hold the power to help militaries and munitions manufacturing plants around the world clean up toxic waste on test sites.

Compounds known as nitramines, specifically RDX, were invented back in World War II and have been used in military munitions for decades. These high-energy compounds are often used to propel tank shells and act like a more powerful version of TNT.

But with increased knowledge of their environmentally harmful effects, Canadian and US militaries, along with others around the world are looking for ways to clean up their contaminated test sites.

Dr. Lindsay Eltis of UBC, is leading the Genome BC-funded project entitled, Genomic Studies of Explosives Biodegradation.  The $3.45 million project will study how bacteria degrade RDX and determine how to maximize its potential for bioremediation.

“RDX is a rich source of nitrogen, and certain bacteria including Rhodococcus and Gordonia, have evolved to thrive on the contaminants this explosive leaves behind,” says Eltis.

With a voracious appetite for toxic chemical compounds and a near indestructibility (some can survive even high levels of nuclear radiation), Eltis describes bacteria as the “ultimate garbage incinerators.”

This Genome BC-funded research, which is also funded by the US Military, presents a welcome alternative to the current option for cleanup at these sites: a costly and invasive process which involves removing the top layer of soil, carting it away by dump truck and burning it in an incinerator.

Defence Research and Development Canada, an Agency of the Canadian Department of National Defense has assisted this research by providing soil samples.  Dr. Sylvie Brochu is a Defense Scientist with the organization. “Protection of the environment is a high priority for DND. We are committed to conducting military training in a way that causes as little impact on the environment as possible. We are always looking for solutions to existing environmental problems and this research presents a natural solution that is very attractive.” 

“Genome BC is pleased to support such a novel and valuable project,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO. “Bacteria mediated degradation of RDX is the key to a less invasive form of environmental cleanup of these test sites. The innovative genomic approach of this research holds great promise for useful technologies and improved bioremediation strategies.”

About Genome BC

Founded in 2000, Genome BC works collaboratively with government, universities and industry as the catalyst for a genomics-driven life sciences cluster with significant social and economic benefits for the Province and Canada. The organization's research portfolio, over $410 million since inception, includes 74 projects and technology platforms focused on areas of strategic importance to British Columbia such as human health, forestry, fisheries, bioenergy, mining, agriculture, and the environment. Genome BC programs are funded by Genome Canada, the Provincial Government of British Columbia, Western Economic Diversification Canada and other public and private partners.

For more information visit www.genomebc.ca.

Click here for more background information on this project.