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Release: March 16, 2000

UI researcher receives grant to study how bacteria break down pollutants

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A University of Iowa Health Care researcher has received a five-year, $1.08 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how bacteria can break down environmental pollutants.

David T. Gibson, Ph.D., UI professor of microbiology, is researching "Mechanisms of Enzymatic Oxygen Fixation."

Gibson and researchers in his laboratory are focusing on a family of environmental pollutants known as aromatic hydrocarbons, which are formed by the incomplete burning of substances such as gasoline, cigarettes, forest fires and even barbecued meats. Most aromatic hydrocarbons are toxic, and some are known to cause cancer.

"Through our studies, we have identified the pathways that bacteria use to degrade these pollutants and specific enzymes that can convert these compounds to non-toxic, useful products," Gibson said.

Gibson eventually wants to understand the molecular mechanisms of the enzymes that add atmospheric oxygen to the aromatic nucleus of hydrocarbons.

"The results of our work will lead to a better understanding of the use of microorganisms to remove specific pollutants from contaminated environments," Gibson said. "In addition, our studies will lead to the conversion of aromatic hydrocarbons into compounds that are useful to society. Examples to date include indigo dyes, hormones, antibiotics and antiviral compounds."

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