6 Ways Nature Cleans Up Our Messes Better Than We Do
Nature doesn't take punches like she used to. Nearly every environmental disaster over the past century has been our fault and it's easy to assume that we've recklessly forced the entire planet down a path of destruction. But every once in a while, Mother Nature surprises us with her resiliency, Wolverine-like healing abilities and willingness to step in and clean up our goddamn messes when we prove ourselves incompetent.
The Chernobyl Fungus That Eats Radiation
Most of you reading this article are at least vaguely familiar with the Chernobyl disaster, a clusterfuck of experimentation and negligence that led to the worst nuclear plant disaster in history. It irradiated a huge area around the plant and left the neighboring town of Pripyat so much of a ghost town that we declared it one of the creepiest places on Earth. It's so apocalyptic that they've even based video game levels on it.
One of the less successful RollerCoaster Tycoon scenarios.
But even in this area that is as close to Fallout-like radioactive wasteland as real world can offer, life prevails. The dead, contaminated Red Forest created by the radiation is showing signs of life. Rare and endangered animals have found a safe haven in the area avoided by humans. And, inside the ominous plant -- on the Ground Zero site -- mushrooms are happily feasting on radiation.
That's right: There is life inside the reactor of Chernobyl. And it eats radiation.
We didn't say it looks cool
This radiotropic fungus has adapted to turn gamma radiation into food -- it's not the only organism that can absorb radiation, but it is by far the best at it. The fungus' radiation-eating properties obviously piqued scientists interests since it could help radically reduce radiation levels in contaminated areas. But there's also another reason science wants to take a closer look at the Chernobyl mushroom: The scientists are looking at ways to use the radiation absorbing fungus as food.
The resulting mutation into Mushroom Man did nothing for this
guy's social life, especially when he started releasing spores.
So to recap, the radiation hurts people, this mushroom eats radiation, people eat mushrooms. Hence, fuck you, radiation. Signed, people.
This could double as a way to combat high-radiation environments while simultaneously growing huge crops of edible mushrooms, which would come really handy in the event of nuclear disasters or during extended space travel. So, when we one day head for the stars for whatever reason, it is possible we'll do so in vessels that feature a four-inch thick coat of sweet, delicious mold on every wall.
"I may have accidentally ejected myself into space, but thank God I have this mold."
The Heavy Metal Superworms That Feast on Poisonous Metals
Back in 2008, a group of U.K. scientists were collecting worms they found in landfills because they were curious how they were digesting the garbage, and because being a scientist is sometimes a shitty job.
"I've discovered that poop holds the secret of immortality! Also, my wife has left me."
Under the microscope, these worms were far from ordinary. They ate things that would kill ordinary earthworms, which, we'd like to remind you, already eat the goddamn earth. What could these new worms use for sustenance that ordinary worms couldn't?
The fires of war, if we've learned anything from Worms Armageddon.
Fucking metal, that's what. Namely, the highly poisonous heavy metals found in abandoned mining sites such as lead, zinc, copper and even arsenic.
And the best part? They use only the worst poisons in these metals for sustenance. So what they crap out is basically a cleaner, virtually poison free version of the metal. The purifying effect of the worms is such that the soil they produce -- previously of the "skull & crossbones" variety -- can actually sustain plant life; single-handedly bringing entire areas back to life.
Paradise. Brought to you by worm crap.
Also, this is not just one mutant variety of worms -- it looks like there are three separate species that have attained this poison-eating ability, so it is not at all impossible that the all of wormkind has had enough of our uselessness and decided to roll up their sleeves to fix everything themselves.
Three of these worms care. The other one thinks you're an asshole.
The Berkeley Pit Bacteria
The Berkeley Pit is an old, open-pit copper mine in Butte, Mont. It was closed and left pretty much unattended in 1982. Since then, the pit has been gradually pooling water and forming a 900-foot-deep lake with more water seeping in every day. "What about it?" you may ask. Who wouldn't want to replace a coppery hell-pit with a nice, peaceful lake?
Well, that's the kicker. The water soaks up the remaining ore from the ground, leaving it the approximate consistency and acidity of lemon juice laced with copper. And lead. And arsenic. And sulfuric acid. It's deadly to swim in and insists on reminding everyone of that fact by slurping up flocks of geese every once in awhile. What was once known as "the richest hill in the world" has essentially turned into an acid murder pool.
Acid Murder Pool: Touring Spring 2011.
And it gets worse.
More and more water flows into the pit every day, and it is estimated to reach a critical mass by 2021. After that, the water won't flow into the pit but flow from it, toward the surrounding areas and back in the ground water. The effect that would have on nearby ecosystems is similar to pouring 30 billion gallons of battery acid all over Montana, because that's exactly what is going to happen. Steps are being taken to prevent this, of course, but processes are slow and we are really running against time.
And our filtration processes are a bit slow.
It turns out we have a surprising ally in this fight. In 1995, a biochemist named William Chatham noticed something strange in the pit. A green slime that, upon closer inspection, proved to be a living organism. It was wallowing happily in the bull blood-colored poison that is the pit's "water." The slime turned out to be a protozoan called Euglena mutabilis that can not only survive the toxic metals and acid, but is thriving.
Life is wonderful. And a little bit horrible.
It works by way of photosynthesis, the same process plants use to make oxygen. Only, Euglena mutabilis uses it to oxidize the metals in the water by increasing the general oxygen level of the pit. This, in turn, causes the metals to harmlessly precipitate away.
What's more, this protozoan badass eats the iron in the water. And what does it crap? Why, a potential cure for cancer of course.
Also diamonds. It pees diamonds.
Also, it's not battling alone. Scientists have found a whole host of different bacteria and fungi in the pit as well, all fighting the good fight. So what we're saying is if you give Mother Nature a pool of acid, she'll turn it into a goddamned ecosystem.
A Bacteria That Eats Poison and Makes Electricity
Quick, what's the first thing that comes in your mind when we say "bacteria"? If there's even one amongst you who answered that question with "electricity," then chances are you're either a lying bastard or Charles Milliken of the Medical University of South Carolina. In which case, can we call you Chuck?
Chuck and his colleague, Harold May, are microbiologists with a rather interesting feather in their matching scientist caps: They have found a form of bacteria that is able to generate electricity. The bacteria in question is a member of a genus known as Desulfitobacterium, and although bacteria has proven before its ability to produce small amounts of electricity, this genus of bacteria apparently has never really applied itself. We have no idea why it has decided to make electricity now.
To power tiny, tiny guitars.
Presumably it just saw an opportunity to be helpful and give us something in return since we keep giving it all those delicious bleaches, pesticides and chemicals to absorb; the Desulfitobacterium makes its electricity as a by-product of making toxic waste harmless.
We're not talking about barely measurable sparks here -- the research has only begun, but already the two scientists have studied batches that are capable of continuously generating electricity at levels that could be used to operate small electronic devices. So if you've ever had a hankering for a germ-powered vibrator, your dream is close to realization.
Pleasure: Powered by STDs.
The Gulf of Mexico Microbe That Eats Oil Slicks
For those of you who don't remember much of 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was one of the hottest topics and biggest disasters of the year. For three agonizing months, the oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, while the world watched in horror and the BP management seemingly spent their time seeing how far up their asses they could fit their own heads.
The spill fucked the Gulf of Mexico up thoroughly and the sheer insane amount of oil (205.8 million gallons!) that leaked into the ocean made the Exxon Valdez disaster seem like the oil stain in somebody's driveway.
Then, two weeks after the plugging of the BP spill, we started getting reports that said that half of the oil was ... gone.
"Must have been birds. Those damn things will steal anything that's glued to their bodies."
Now, science has long been aware of oil-eating bacteria. Specialized germs have evolved to get their nutrition from underwater oil leaks that happen all the time due to sea bottom earthquakes. Some scientists had even stepped forward with the theory that the BP spill may cause a feeding frenzy among them (the bacteria, not the scientists). But what came as a complete surprise to everyone involved was the speed at which they slurped up the oil. Some of the disappeared oil ended up on the seafloor, sure, but, with time, the bacteria will likely eat that, too.
The spill still messed up the coastline, possibly forever, but it's nice to see nature stepping in like a mad parent to help us clean up the horrific mess we made.
"Aw, not all over the Atlantic! I've just cleaned that!"
The E. Coli Bacterium That Poops Biofuel
Have you ever eaten cheap takeout or fast food, only to spend the rest of the night sobbing between explosive bouts of diarrhea and puking? Chances are, you made acquaintances with Escherichia coli, or E.coli bacteria.
Meet E.Coli. After poisoning you, he'll drink all your beer and forget to call you.
Some types of E.coli are potentially lethal, although it usually settles for giving you the shits and keeping the giggles for itself. And it's difficult as hell to avoid. The burger flipping guy forgot to wash his hands? E.coli. The meat was undercooked? E.coli. You ate at Taco Bell? The only ingredient they USE is E.coli.
The third taco is currently being pumped from a guy's stomach.
But E.coli gets a bad rap. The good kind of E.coli actually is a big part of the ecosystem of your gut, happily living in your intestines and helping to keep that whole system working. So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that it might help save the world.
E.coli itself is a living organism, and as such it has to eat too. It can metabolize a number of energy sources, but it has a real craving for only one -- namely, glucose. And why not? Who doesn't love sugar? OK, other than diabetics, smartass.
Easter eggs: clusterbombs against the elderly.
Now, scientist have been interested in glucose for a long time, particularly in its ability to convert to biofuel. And, as it turns out, one of the stranger but potentially easy ways of achieving this conversion is through the digestion of bacteria. So, ideally we could make some poor bacteria eat up so much glucose that it shits fuel like a fire hose.
Sweet disgusting revenge.
Now, if only there was some form of bacteria that really enjoyed its glucose ...
Currently, E.coli bacteria are being bioengineered to eat their preferred junk food just like before -- but, in a delicious twist of fate, now it's their turn to crap. And what they crap is totally renewable biofuel.
And what we crap occasionally makes it into a taco. That's the circle of life.
Pauli Poisuo is a freelance writer. You can find his humble Internet home here.
And check out why Mother Nature is having to clean up after us in 6 Natural Disasters That Were Caused by Human Stupidity and Man's 6 Most Ridiculous Attempts To Take On Mother Nature.