A safer and sustainable environment

Highly toxic and environmentally persistent industrial substances, PCBs or Polychlorinate biphenyls, were one of the major waste issues of the late 20th century.

La Trobe studies headed by John Waid tracked these chemicals from Western Australia to the Great Barrier Reef.  His laboratory also developed a process, the first of its kind approved for field trials in the US, deploying microorganisms to degrade PCBs.

Another microbiologist, Donald MacPhee, was an internationally recognised expert and spokesperson on DNA change and genetic toxicology of chemicals and radiation to which humans are exposed.  In the mid-1970s he founded the Australian and New Zealand Environmental Mutagen Society. He was later appointed by the US National Academic of Sciences as chief of radiobiology at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima, Japan.

At a time when concern about climate change and how to manage it was still in its early days, La Trobe’s Centre for Environmental Studies and Adaptation Research, led by genetics graduateAry Hoffman, discovered in lab experiments a series of genes that control resistance to heat stress associated with climatic adaptation.

Joanna Santini and Joan Macey discovered nine different arsenic metabolising bacteria in the Northern Territory. One was dubbed the ‘reigning world champion arsenic munching microbe’. It was harnessed to clean up arsenic contamination in mining waste and also in drinking water, where it can be a naturally occurring problem in many parts of the world.

A European Union funded project dealing with the long-term stability of nuclear waste in underground storages used know-how based on a process for measuring the redox reactivity of soils developed by chemist Ewen Silvester from our Albury- Wodonga campus.

In an increasingly industrialised world good farmland is fast becoming a limited resource. So La Trobe scientists are harnessing two of nature’s most common life forms – bacteria and plants – to track down toxic contamination and clean up polluted soil.

Environmental biologists Lara Bereza-Malcolm and Jen Wiltshire are combatting toxic environmental compounds like arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. Lara ‘trains’ harmless bacteria to act as ‘sniffer dogs’ to identify harmful chemicals in soil, while Jen is modifying the creeper pig face to boost its ability to clean up heavy metal pollution.

Their work is carried out in microbiologist Ashley Franks’ laboratory. This deals with cutting-edge research into bioenergy – generation of electricity from bacteria and waste – and new forms of bioremediation to fight pollution.