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  • Microbe

    brooms for the environment

    By Suvira Srivastav

    Indian scientists, in collaboration

    with Swiss counterparts, have found a novel way to clean up the

    environment: add teeth to pesticide-chomping microbes and keep

    them rejuvenated through stimulants. This microbial broom, they

    hope, will hold the key to clean global environs, devoid of pesticide


    The finding can be aptly termed 'revolutionary'

    for identifying the right bacteria amongst 50 billion micro-organisms

    present in a teaspoonful of soil is not only an uphill task but

    also requires immense microbiological sleuthing and, of course,

    that little bit of luck! Indian scientists got an overdose of

    both as they have not only been able to identify the strains that

    degrade different pesticides but have also achieved phenomenal

    success in reducing the degradation time span from 30-50 years

    to a mere 15 days.

    The marathon hunt got a boost when

    eminent microbiologists like Professor Rup Lal from the Department

    of Zoology, University of Delhi; Dr Banwari Lal from the Bioresources

    and Biotechnology Division, TERI (the energy and resources institute),

    Delhi; and Dr Rakesh K Jain from the Institute of Microbial Technology,

    Chandigarh, joined hands in April 2000, under the aegis of the

    Indo-Swiss collaboration on biotechnology for 'Bioremediation

    of pesticide-contaminated soils and its effect on soil functionality'.

    Each scientist zeroed down on a particular pesticide to work on:

    Dr Lal focused on endosulfan, Prof. Lal chose hexachlorohexane

    or lindane; while Dr Jain identified PNP (para-nitro phenol).

    'Most of these pesticides were banned

    or restricted in the US and Europe years ago but are still applied

    in India to control insect pests affecting pulse and wheat,' reads

    the project report. Indian scientists zeroed down on these as

    'pesticides like endosulfan are lipid-soluble and once inside

    human body, it is impossible to extricate them,' says Ms Nutan

    Kaushik, Fellow, TERI. To worsen matters, this happens to be the

    'one of the safest' pesticides available, she adds, making it

    an obvious choice for farmers. However, Dr Lal concentrated his

    efforts on endosulfan, as any accumulation of this pesticide in

    human body can be dangerous. Dr Jain choice was PNP, as it happens

    to be the 'immediate by-product of three widely used pesticides,

    is very toxic, and persists in the soil'.

    This handholding, it was believed,

    would relieve the nagging environmental concerns over the extensive

    use of chemical pesticides, which do keep crops healthy but also

    contaminate soil, food, and water. And what a contamination it

    is: the pesticide residues, once accumulated in the soil, can

    linger on for years and years, affecting crops and human health

    down through many generations.

    Armed with the arsenal of knowledge

    about the side effects of pesticide contamination, the scientists

    got down on their knees to collect soil samples from different

    contaminated sites. 'We endeavoured to develop and test an efficient

    and cost-effective biological treatment technique for agricultural

    sites, with the ultimate objective of restoring soil functionality,'

    says Dr Lal. The efforts are laudable as identification of the

    right strains and mixing with contaminated soil has given encouraging

    results. Fortunately, the process of degradation is also eco-friendly.

    Scientists have not only been able

    to identify the right strains that can accelerate degradation

    of pesticide in soil, but have also realized that a concentrated

    dose of these bacteria can reduce the time span of degradation.

    According to laboratory experiments, two of the bacteria strains

    take merely 15 days to degrade 90% of the pesticide present in

    contaminated soil. This is astounding, considering that the half-life

    (time taken by a chemical to decompose in natural conditions)

    of pesticides like endosulphan is well over 30 years.

    Half the battle won, scientists are

    hopeful of coming up with a unique product that takes this remediation

    technology a step further. However, critics like Ms Pabia Sarkar,

    Senior Programme Officer with Toxics Link, a Delhi-based NGO,

    feel that it is too early to bet on these technologies. She adds,

    'It is safer to emphasize on integrated pest management and organic

    farming, for the long-term impact of these techniques needs to

    be studied and analysed.'

    Whatever sceptics or experts may

    feel, there is no doubt that a microbe revolution is about to

    take us by storm. For a change, this storm will stabilize our

    lives and make us more confident to eat and drink whatever is

    freely available in the market. Dr Jain adds, 'The beauty of this

    solution is that it offers no potential threat to human health,

    since these are non-pathogenic bacteria.'

    Will it or won't it? The debate will

    linger on in intellectual forums. However, as long as microbes

    hold promise, there should be many takers…


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