Releasing the Power of Nature for Cleaning Pollutants in Drinking Water

We live in a water-rich world. However, up to 97 percent of Earth’s water is salty, so only a very small portion is suitable for industrial and agricultural use and human consumption. Furthermore, a large percentage of the freshwater resources in the world are contaminated by industrial and agricultural chemicals. These chemicals are increasingly being produced and used in Third World countries where the resources are inadequate — and  sometimes the political will and the financial means are lacking — to cleanup chronic pollutants or take precautions against contamination. The problems that germinate locally easily translate into global mega-issues. For example, in 2008 in China, melamine was added to certain foods to fraudulently increase their protein content. These food items ended up being consumed in 75 countries and the contaminatin became a worldwide issue taken up by the World Health Organization.

Industrial-scale, efficient and high-tech pollution control and cleanup systems only exist in the developed countries that can bear the high cost burden. This is not the case in the underdeveloped and developing countries, where most people are constantly exposed to very high levels of air, soil and water pollution.  This project proposes to address the environmental grand challenge of drinking water pollution, an issue that affects all of the world’s population. A new systematic approach for mitigating against chemical pollutants in drinking water (either released accidentally or persistently present at low concentrations due to industrial and agricultural runoff) using encapsulated, naturally occurring bacteria selected for their ability to efficiently degrade targeted chemicals (bioremediation) will be employed.

The project will:

  • develop and use a computational algorithm to identify enzymes that would efficiently degrade targeted pollutants in drinking water and screen out bacteria that would express these enzymes efficiently
  • develop a low-cost, low-energy-demand, self-sustained bioremediation system that can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world. 

Project Leads

  • Alptekin Aksan (, Associate Professor, College of Science and Engineering
  • Larry Wackett (, Professor, College of Biological Sciences