Researchers from the University of Georgia, on a recent field trip to a remote salt lake near Yosemite National Park, found the bacteria buried deep in mud along the lake's edge and surviving on elements that are notoriously poisonous to humans, such as antimony and arsenic, in place of oxygen, the university reported Friday.
"Just like humans breathe oxygen, these bacteria respire poisonous elements to survive," researcher Chris Abin said. "It is particularly fond of arsenic, but it uses other related elements as well, and we think it may be possible to harness these natural abilities to make useful products out of different elements."
The bacteria possess a number of different enzymes that allow them to use other dangerous elements, such as those that accumulate in waste water near mines or refineries and pose serious threats to humans and animals, the researchers said.
The bacteria could be used to remove pollutants from the wastewater and protect the surrounding ecosystems, they said.
"It might be used in one of two ways," principle study investigator James Hollibaugh said. "The bacteria could be used simply to clean up the water, but it might also be possible for the bacteria to help humans recover and recycle the valuable elements in the water."
The study has been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.