Bioremediation is a process used to treat contaminated media, including water, soil and subsurface material, by altering environmental conditions to stimulate growth of microorganisms and degrade the target pollutants. In many cases, bioremediation is less expensive and more sustainable than other remediation alternatives.[1] Biological treatment is a similar approach used to treat wastes including wastewater, industrial waste and solid waste.

Most bioremediation processes involve oxidation-reduction reactions where either an electron acceptor (commonly oxygen) is added to stimulate oxidation of a reduced pollutant (e.g. hydrocarbons) or an electron donor (commonly an organic substrate) is added to reduce oxidized pollutants (nitrate, perchlorate, oxidized metals, chlorinated solvents, explosives and propellants).[2] In both these approaches, additional nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and pH buffers may be added to optimize conditions for the microorganisms. In some cases, specialized microbial cultures are added (bioaugmentation) to further enhance biodegradation. Some examples of bioremediation related technologies are phytoremediation, mycoremediation, bioventing, bioleaching, landfarming, bioreactor, composting, bioaugmentation, rhizofiltration, and biostimulation.


Most bioremediation processes involve oxidation-reduction (Redox) reactions where a chemical species donates an electron (electron donor) to a different species that accepts the electron (electron acceptor). During this process, the electron donor is said to be oxidized while the electron acceptor is reduced. Common electron acceptors in bioremediation processes include oxygen, nitrate, manganese (III and IV), iron (III), sulfate, carbon dioxide and some pollutants (chlorinated solvents, explosives, oxidized metals, and radionuclides). Electron donors include sugars, fats, alcohols, natural organic material, fuel hydrocarbons and a variety of reduced organic pollutants. The redox potential for common biotransformation reactions is shown in the table.

ProcessReactionRedox potential (Eh in mV) 
aerobicO2 + 4e + 4H+ → 2H2O600 ~ 400
denitrification2NO3 + 10e + 12H+ → N2 + 6H2O500 ~ 200
manganese IV reductionMnO2 + 2e + 4H+ → Mn2+ + 2H2O    400 ~ 200
iron III reductionFe(OH)3 + e + 3H+ → Fe2+ + 3H2O300 ~ 100
sulfate reductionSO42− + 8e +10 H+ → H2S + 4H2O0 ~ −150
fermentation2CH2O → CO2 + CH4−150 ~ −220


Aerobic bioremediation is the most common form of oxidative bioremediation process where oxygen is provided as the electron acceptor for oxidation of petroleum, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenols, and other reduced pollutants. Oxygen is generally the preferred electron acceptor because of the higher energy yield and because oxygen is required for some enzyme systems to initiate the degradation process.[3] Numerous laboratory and field studies have shown that microorganisms can degrade a wide variety of hydrocarbons, including components of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and jet fuel. Under ideal conditions, the biodegradation rates of the low- to moderate-weight aliphatic, alicyclic, and aromatic compounds can be very high. As the molecular weight of the compound increases, so does the resistance to biodegradation.[3]

Common approaches for providing oxygen above the water table include landfarming, composting and bioventing. During landfarming, contaminated soils, sediments, or sludges are incorporated into the soil surface and periodically turned over (tilled) using conventional agricultural equipment to aerate the mixture. Composting accelerates pollutant biodegradation by mixing the waste to be treated with a bulking agent, forming into piles, and periodically mixed to increase oxygen transfer. Bioventing is a process that increases the oxygen or air flow into the unsaturated zone of the soil which increases the rate of natural in situ degradation of the targeted hydrocarbon contaminant.[4]

Approaches for oxygen addition below the water table include recirculating aerated water through the treatment zone, addition of pure oxygen or peroxides, and air sparging. Recirculation systems typically consist of a combination of injection wells or galleries and one or more recovery wells where the extracted groundwater is treated, oxygenated, amended with nutrients and reinjected. However, the amount of oxygen that can be provided by this method is limited by the low solubility of oxygen in water (8 to 10 mg/L for water in equilibrium with air at typical temperatures). Greater amounts of oxygen can be provided by contacting the water with pure oxygen or addition of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) to the water. In some cases, slurries of solid calcium or magnesium peroxide are injected under pressure through soil borings. These solid peroxides react with water releasing H2O2 which then decomposes releasing oxygen. Air sparging involves the injection of air under pressure below the water table. The air injection pressure must be great enough to overcome the hydrostatic pressure of the water and resistance to air flow through the soil.[5]


Anaerobic bioremediation can be employed to treat a broad range of oxidized contaminants including chlorinated ethenes (PCE, TCE, DCE, VC), chlorinated ethanes (TCA, DCA), chloromethanes (CT, CF), chlorinated cyclic hydrocarbons, various energetics (e.g., perchlorate,[6] RDX, TNT), and nitrate.[7] This process involves the addition of an electron donor to: 1) deplete background electron acceptors including oxygen, nitrate, oxidized iron and manganese and sulfate; and 2) stimulate the biological and/or chemical reduction of the oxidized pollutants. Hexavalent chromium (Cr[VI]) and uranium (U[VI]) can be reduced to less mobile and/or less toxic forms (e.g., Cr[III], U[IV]). Similarly, reduction of sulfate to sulfide (sulfidogenesis) can be used to precipitate certain metals (e.g., zinc, cadmium). The choice of substrate and the method of injection depend on the contaminant type and distribution in the aquifer, hydrogeology, and remediation objectives. Substrate can be added using conventional well installations, by direct-push technology, or by excavation and backfill such as permeable reactive barriers (PRB) or biowalls. Slow-release products composed of edible oils or solid substrates tend to stay in place for an extended treatment period. Soluble substrates or soluble fermentation products of slow-release substrates can potentially migrate via advection and diffusion, providing broader but shorter-lived treatment zones. The added organic substrates are first fermented to hydrogen (H2) and volatile fatty acids (VFAs). The VFAs, including acetate, lactate, propionate and butyrate, provide carbon and energy for bacterial metabolism.[7][2]

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals including cadmium, chromium, lead and uranium are elements so they cannot be biodegraded. However, bioremediation processes can potentially be used to reduce the mobility of these material in the subsurface, reducing the potential for human and environmental exposure. The mobility of certain metals including chromium (Cr) and uranium (U) varies depending on the oxidation state of the material.[8] Microorganisms can be used to reduce the toxicity and mobility of chromium by reducing hexavalent chromium, Cr(VI) to trivalent Cr (III).[9] Uranium can be reduced from the more mobile U(VI) oxidation state to the less mobile U(IV) oxidation state.[10][11] Microorganisms are used in this process because the reduction rate of these metals is often slow unless catalyzed by microbial interactions[12] Research is also underway to develop methods to remove metals from water by enhancing the sorption of the metal to cell walls.[12] This approach has been evaluated for treatment of cadmium,[13] chromium,[14] and lead.[15] Phytoextraction processes concentrate contaminants in the biomass for subsequent removal.


In the event of biostimulation, adding nutrients that are limited to make the environment more suitable for bioremediation, nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon may be added to the system to improve effectiveness of the treatment.[16]

Many biological processes are sensitive to pH and function most efficiently in near neutral conditions. Low pH can interfere with pH homeostasis or increase the solubility of toxic metals. Microorganisms can expend cellular energy to maintain homeostasis or cytoplasmic conditions may change in response to external changes in pH. Some anaerobes have adapted to low pH conditions through alterations in carbon and electron flow, cellular morphology, membrane structure, and protein synthesis.[17]


Bioremediation can be used to completely mineralize organic pollutants, to partially transform the pollutants, or alter their mobility. Heavy metals and radionuclides are elements that cannot be biodegraded, but can be bio-transformed to less mobile forms.[18][19][20] In some cases, microbes do not fully mineralize the pollutant, potentially producing a more toxic compound.[20] For example, under anaerobic conditions, the reductive dehalogenation of TCE may produce dichloroethylene (DCE) and vinyl chloride (VC), which are suspected or known carcinogens.[18] However, the microorganism Dehalococcoides can further reduce DCE and VC to the non-toxic product ethene.[21] Additional research is required to develop methods to ensure that the products from biodegradation are less persistent and less toxic than the original contaminant.[20] Thus, the metabolic and chemical pathways of the microorganisms of interest must be known.[18] In addition, knowing these pathways will help develop new technologies that can deal with sites that have uneven distributions of a mixture of contaminants.[22]

Also, for biodegradation to occur, there must be a microbial population with the metabolic capacity to degrade the pollutant, an environment with the right growing conditions for the microbes, and the right amount of nutrients and contaminants.[22][19] The biological processes used by these microbes are highly specific, therefore, many environmental factors must be taken into account and regulated as well.[22][18] Thus, bioremediation processes must be specifically made in accordance to the conditions at the contaminated site.[18] Also, because many factors are interdependent, small-scale tests are usually performed before carrying out the procedure at the contaminated site.[19] However, it can be difficult to extrapolate the results from the small-scale test studies into big field operations.[22] In many cases, bioremediation takes more time than other alternatives such as land filling and incineration.[22][18]

Genetic engineering

The use of genetic engineering to create organisms specifically designed for bioremediation is under preliminary research.[23] Two category of genes can be inserted in the organism: degradative genes which encode proteins required for the degradation of pollutants, and reporter genes that are able to monitor pollution levels.[24] Numerous members of Pseudomonas have also been modified with the lux gene, but for the detection of the polyaromatic hydrocarbon naphthalene. A field test for the release of the modified organism has been successful on a moderately large scale.[25]

There are concerns surrounding release and containment of genetically modified organisms into the environment due to the potential of horizontal gene transfer.[26] Genetically modified organisms are classified and controlled under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 under United States Environmental Protection Agency.[27] Measures have been created to address these concerns. Organisms can be modified such that they can only survive and grow under specific sets of environmental conditions.[26] In addition, the tracking of modified organisms can be made easier with the insertion of bioluminescence genes for visual identification.[28]

See also


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  3. Norris, Robert (1993). Handbook of Bioremediation. CRC Press. p. 45. ISBN 9781351363457.
  4. Frutos, F. Javier García; Escolano, Olga; García, Susana; Babín, Mar; Fernández, M. Dolores (November 2010). "Bioventing remediation and ecotoxicity evaluation of phenanthrene-contaminated soil". Journal of Hazardous Materials. 183 (1–3): 806–813. doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2010.07.098. ISSN 0304-3894.
  5. Leeson, Andrea (2002). Air Sparging Design Paradigm. BATTELLE COLUMBUS OH.
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  11. R.G. Ford and R.T. Wilkin (2007). Monitored natural attenuation of inorganic contaminants in groundwater, Volume 3 Assessment for Radionuclides Including Tritium, Radon, Strontium, Technetium, Uranium, Iodine, Radium, Thorium, Cesium, and Plutonium-Americium (PDF). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA/600/R-10/093.
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  16. Adams, Omokhagbor (February 28, 2015). "Bioremediation, Biostimulation and Bioaugmentation: A Review". International Journal of Environmental Bioremediation and Biodegredation. 3 (1): 28–39 via Research Gate.
  17. Slonczewski, J.L. (2009). "Stress Responses: pH". In Schaechter, Moselio (ed.). Encyclopedia of microbiology (3rd ed.). Elsevier. pp. 477–484. doi:10.1016/B978-012373944-5.00100-0. ISBN 978-0-12-373944-5.
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  20. Wexler, editor-in-chief, Philip (2014). Encyclopedia of toxicology (3rd ed.). San Diego, Ca: Academic Press Inc. p. 489. ISBN 9780123864543.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
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  25. Ripp S, Nivens DE, Ahn Y, Werner C, Jarrell J, Easter JP, Cox CD, Burlage RS, Sayler GS (2000). "Controlled Field Release of a Bioluminescent Genetically Engineered Microorganism for Bioremediation Process Monitoring and Control". Environmental Science & Technology. 34 (5): 846–53. Bibcode:2000EnST...34..846R. doi:10.1021/es9908319.
  26. Davison J (December 2005). "Risk mitigation of genetically modified bacteria and plants designed for bioremediation". Journal of Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology. 32 (11–12): 639–50. doi:10.1007/s10295-005-0242-1. PMID 15973534.
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