for National Geographic News
The high cost of treating human wastewater may one day tank thanks to a bacterium that eats ammonia and produces rocket fuel.
Standard water treatment plants use oxygen-hungry bacteria to break down human waste. To feed the microbes, plants must aerate sewage sludge with costly, power-hogging equipment.
But Brocadia anammoxidans, or anammox bacteria, survive without oxygen, producing energy from nitrite and ammonia, which is found naturally in human waste.
"Conventional [bacteria] treatments do a good job, so the big benefit is doing this much more efficiently and cheaply," said Marc Strous, a microbiologist at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Strous says savings could be enormous, up to 90 percent versus standard sewage treatment plants. A prototype facility in Rotterdam is already earning praise.
Scientists first discovered anammox bacteria in yeast and later in the open ocean in the late 1990s.
The unusual microbes consume ammonia, producing hydrazinebetter known as rocket fuelin the process. The ability still puzzles scientists.
"They are the only organism on Earth that produces hydrazine, so until their discovery, [hydrazine] was thought to be a man-made substance," Strous said.
The bacteria safely store the toxic fuel in an organelle, or specialized cell structure, similar to mitochondria, a type of biological power plant found in human cells.
The anammox organelle binds hydrazine with a fatty-acid membrane that could itself have intriguing scientific applications, including the design of optoelectronic equipment.
But don't expect the bacteria to supply NASA with rocket fuel to launch a spacecraft.
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