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Bacteria from cold environs could help clean clothes

"The cold regions of our planet are actually becoming more reachable for exploration and for scientific research," researcher Amedea Perfumo said.

By Brooks Hays
Bacteria from cold environs could help clean clothes
Bacteria living in the Arctic could yield cold-activated detergents and other promising products. NASA Photo by Nathan Kurtz/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Bacteria have evolved to thrive in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. New research suggests bacteria living in the extreme cold of the planet's polar regions could be used as "green" detergents.

In the new study, scientists at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam considered the commercial potential of polar bacteria.

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The bacteria found in Earth's polar regions is able to survive more than just frigid temperatures. They thrive despite increased ultraviolet radiation and a dearth of liquid water and nutrients. They do so thanks to molecules called biosurfactants.

Scientists believe biosurfactants could help clean clothes or boost the performance of fuel.

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"They really have a tremendous potential," microbiologist and biotechnologist Amedea Perfumo said in a news release.

Researchers have previously synthesized biosurfactants from waste like cooking oil byproducts, but the biosurfactants produced by extremophilic bacteria have the added benefit of functioning at subzero temperatures.

Scientists suggest the addition of biosurfactants could make biodiesel, which burns cleaner than gasoline, a viable fuel option by enabling it to flow more smoothly at colder temperatures. The molecules could also allow detergents to be activated at colder washing temperatures, conserving energy.

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Additionally, biosurfactants could be used to clean up pollution in cold ocean water.

"The cold regions of our planet are actually becoming more reachable for exploration and for scientific research," Perfumo said. "Scientists who don't have the option to go personally to the polar regions and take samples can simply get organisms from culture collections. It's in reach for everybody."

The cold-active enzymes created by extremophilic bacteria are already being synthesized for industrial purposes, and Perfumo thinks biosurfactants will be next. But she says more research is necessary to determine which types of extremophilic bacteria yield the most useful biosurfactants.

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"We still only know a little," she said. "I think that with a little work and a little patience and especially with joint forces, we can take a bold step in the near future. It will really be a grand challenge for science and technology."

Perfumo detailed the potential of cold-active biosurfactants in the journal Trends in Biotechnology.

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