Researchers discover swamp microbe with pollution-munching superpower

Written by
Chris Emery, School of Engineering and Applied Science
April 11, 2018

A bacterium discovered by Princeton researchers in a New Jersey swamp may offer a more efficient method for treating ammonium, a pollutant found in sewage, fertilizer runoff and other forms of water pollution. The bacterium, Acidimicrobiaceae bacterium A6, is capable of breaking down ammonium in the absence of oxygen, an ability that could be useful for new methods to treat sewage or for remediating pollution in soil and groundwater where little oxygen is present.

After years of painstaking research, Princeton scientists reported the discovery of A6 and its unique abilities in the journal PLOS ONE. Prior research by the group in 2004 in a New Jersey wetland first uncovered that ammonium was being broken down naturally in the absence of oxygen along with a reduction in iron, a process dubbed Feammox. But only after extensive lab research was the group able to definitively confirm that the A6 bacterium was responsible.

Removing ammonium is important to prevent depletion of oxygen in streams and to prevent eutrophication, the growth of excessive algae and other plants triggered by nitrogen compounds from sewage and agricultural runoff. In their ongoing research combining field studies of the Feammox process in natural habitats with carefully controlled lab experiments, Princeton scientists hope to harness the microbe’s abilities and finetune the process to more efficiently eliminate pollutants.

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