Cleaning up benzene contamination

Benzene is a simple hydrocarbon that occurs naturally in crude oils and refined fuels, and is used as a precursor in industrial processes. It is a common contaminant in fuel storage and industrial sites. Benzene is highly toxic and carcinogenic, and therefore its removal from sites near human habitation is a priority in contaminated site cleanup. Many common remediation methods, including soil removal and pumping out groundwater (“pump and treat”), are environmentally invasive and risk worker exposure. Bioremediation, or degradation of contaminants by bacteria, is increasingly used as a strategy to supplement or supplant other benzene removal methods. Benzene biodegradation can occur under a variety of environmental conditions, including aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic benzene degradation occurs quickly and is fully characterized, but few contaminated sites are aerobic beyond the surface layer. Anaerobic benzene degradation occurs slowly and is a relatively uncharacterized process, and therefore needs further study. The Edwards lab has cultivated enriched benzene-degrading cultures from a variety of contaminated sites over fifteen years and study the bacterial community and degradation of these cultures to determine the mechanism of degradation and, ultimately, improve the options for bioremediation of benzene.

Elisse Magnuson