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UConn engineering professor nets top journal (Released: 7/13/00)

By Janice Palmer, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- A revolutionary new method for vanquishing the toxic solvent tetrachloroethylene (PCE) recently was discovered by Thomas Wood, a professor of engineering at the University Connecticut. The method, involving bacterium Pseudomonas stutzeri OX1 and one of its enzymes, solves an environmental dilemma that has nettled scientists for decades: how to break down dangerous organic compounds aerobically.

The technique is detailed in the July 2000 issue of the journal, Nature Biotechnology. The article is entitled "Aerobic degradation of tetrachloroethylene by toluene-o-xylene monooxygenase of Pseudomonas stutzeri OX1," and was co-written by Drs. Wood, Doohyun Ryoo, Hojae Shim, and Keith Canada of UConn's Department of Chemical Engineering and by Paola Barbieri of the Dipartimento di Genetica e de Biologia dei Microrganismi Universita degli studi of Milan, Italy.

Nature Biotechnology is a premier peer-reviewed journal of biotechnology, providing reviews and research reports on the research and technologies that drive biotechnological innovation.

The solvent PCE is used in dry cleaning and manufacturing operations around the world, and is among the most potentially toxic of pollutants found in municipal groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency has deemed it a suspected carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent and requires PCE be remediated to less than five parts per billion.

The key enzyme discovered by Wood and his team, toluene-o-xylene monooxygenase, degrades PCE (and other less-chlorinated, similar compounds) into chloride ions, a harmless byproduct.

Since mixtures of chlorinated wastes are frequently found at contaminated sites, mixtures such as PCE, trichloroethylene, dichloroethylenes, and vinyl chloride are all degraded by this enzyme. The team also found that PCE actually activates the enzyme responsible for its degradation.

Since delivering the enzyme to the contaminated soil and groundwater requires an innovative approach, the team plans to clone the enzyme into another bacterium that bonds symbiotically with the roots of certain trees, such as the fast-growing poplar. When planted in a contaminated area, these trees would quickly send their roots down to the site of the solvent; the host bacteria containing the enzyme then goes to work oxidizing the solvents.

July 2000 Releases
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