New Year’s Eve fireworks display – a footprint in the air?

The image shows a blue sky with cumulus clouds.

First of all, welcome in 2018 and a happy new year full of interesting success stories of biotech! Hopefully, you had a good time with your family and friends and found some time to relax? Certainly, many of us also enjoyed a colorful fireworks display to get into the new year. But – as we all know – fireworks are causing air pollution.

While a couple of us are struggling with the consequences of a long party night, environment is struggling with pollutants like metal particles (e.g. copper, strontium, lithium), toxins, harmful chemicals, smoke and fine dust.

Nowadays, the common methods for the control of air pollution are mainly mechanical tools, such as filtration, gravity techniques or electrostatic precipitation. Gaseous pollutants (e.g. carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide) are treated by cold trapping, adsorption and absorption techniques.

Where biotechnology comes into play

But also biotechnological applications get more and more popular for working against air pollution: an important representative of microorganisms that is able to remove metals from waste, was already introduced in our previous article – Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans. The acib research group of Wolfgang Schnitzhofer recently considered four different gas atmospheres (nitrogen, carbon dioxide, air and a mixture of N2 and CO2). They applied reductive bioleaching with A. ferroxidans and could remove 83% chromium from a carbon dioxide atmosphere. This is very promising, even if by oxidative bioleaching still only 27% chromium were removed.

acib is also dealing with microorganisms that are using CO2 as a carbon source and, thus, offer a way to utilize this greenhouse gas for the production of new and valuable compounds. An important example is Cupriavidus necator: it utilizes CO2 as a carbon source and it is a model organism for the PHB (polyhydroxybutyrate) metabolism. PHB is a polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) – a biodegradable polyester, which is very interesting for environmental biotechnology in the context of bioplastic production. acib scientist Petra Heidinger has long lasting experience with handling C. necator as an efficient expression system, which was developed at acib partner TU Graz.

Prevention is better than cure

All these methods that have been summarized now, have one thing in common: they are trying to wipe out something that was initially caused by ourselves. For the sake of environment and the air that we breathe, it would be better to do our New Year’s Eve without fireworks. And if this is absolutely no option for you, some good news: US researchers work on an alternative. The green pyrotechnics – a kind of ecological fireworks display – is based on guncotton (pyroxylin) that does not produce smoke. Additionally, they try to replace perchlorate by less toxic illuminants. The bad news? No such product is for sale yet.

This work is based on:  
Thallner S et al., “Bioleaching for Removal of Chromium and Associated Metals from LD Slag”, Solid State Phenomena, Vol. 262, pp. 79-83, 2017  
Gruber S, Schwendenwein D, Magomedova Z, Thaler E, Hagen J, Schwab H, Heidinger P: Design of inducible expression vectors for improved protein production in Ralstonia eutropha H16 derived host strains. J. Biotechnol. 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.jbiotec.2016.04.026  
Picture credits: Pixabay