1 Jan 2003

Fungi remove asbestos

A research team from the University of Turin has found a number of fungi that can help clean up soil that is contaminated with asbestos. They think it is possible to inject the genes responsible for the breakdown of asbestos in other microbes that live in soil.


Asbestos - Asbestos fibres in pinky plaster. Found on flickr and made by sarflondondunc .

Until now there was no good way to clean asbestos-contaminated soil. Asbestos particles are harmful because they contain iron. The iron can form free radicals that can damage DNA and cause cancer. By removing the iron, the asbestos would be a lot less toxic.

Most micro-organisms need iron to generate energy. Some of these organisms have found effective ways to get the iron out of the environment. They take iron atoms from the soil and concentrate it in so-called siderophores (iron storage places). The Italian research team has now found that there are fungi that fetch iron from crocidolite, blue asbestos. This is one of the most dangerous forms of asbestos. If the asbestos is no longer containing iron, it can no longer generate carcinogenic free radicals.

The researchers were surprised at the large amount of iron that the organisms assimilate from the asbestos. Another advantage of the fungi is that they bind the asbestos particles in a web. That way the particles are less easily released into the atmosphere.

Source: Chemical Weekly