An essay by TerraStryke founder Kent Armstrong
A new realization in bioremediation referred to as Bioremediation 3.0 was recently discussed in a LinkedIn post by Keith Rapp, Pinnacle Environmental. We at TerraStryke Products LLC support and have for the past several years proclaimed the benefits and capabilities of what procaryotic microbes can really do. As such, we gladly accept the idea of Bioremediation 3.0 but ask, should it not be Bioremediation 4.0? We started with traditional land-farming techniques, Bioremediation 1.0 and quickly applied the technology to in-situ application initiating Bioremediation 2.0. Then came augmentation, Bioremediation 2.1? Followed by Bioremediation 3.0 and the manipulation world attempting to induce aspects of planktonic bacteria, ‘concentrating’ these molecules/enzymes/abilities to increase performance.
We believe TerraStryke is the first to truly accept and adapt Bioremediation 4.0 into our remediation philosophy and line of products. We recognize planktonic bacteria are necessary, but what is truly meaningful is what they can do when conditions are supportive to allow intra- and inter-specie microbial populations to communicate, phenotypically change to abandon the planktonic world and become sessile to build protective structures within which they work at marvelous rates. Yes, procaryotic bacteria under suitable anaerobic conditions communicate/signal, build, share, work collectively. Why? They have over the past 4-5 billion years realized as individuals they are not sustainable and only through the collective partitioning of roles, the enhanced sharing of genetic information, and the construction of protective structures, working as a collective, will they maximize performance organically and sustainably.
TerraStryke Products LLC is a pioneer, first to integrate this concept into our strategies, first to present such information to the remediation industry and, first to wholeheartedly believe we are at the dawn of a new era in remediation, an era we refer to as Bioremediation 4.0.
Biofilm and the process called Quorum Sensing and Signaling (QSS)
It is time the environmental remediation and monitoring industries move forward with what the wastewater, medical, dental, oil production and others have realized for decades: planktonic microbes and what they do are not the answer, rather; it is what planktonic microbes can accomplish when they communicate, share information and become sessile within a collectively constructed housing commonly referred to as a ‘biofilm’, facilitated via the process called Quorum Sensing and Signaling (QSS). It is also time we view the treatment zone as an ecosystem that, when contaminated, is an ecosystem under duress. When exposed to stressful, unsupportable conditions, we know microbial populations will undergo a starvation strategy; a way to survive the ‘drought’ of livable conditions, only to emerge when conditions are reversed and regain supportive capabilities for biological growth.
This has been repeatedly demonstrated to all of us as we become aware of the previous believed sterile world at the bottom of the Oceans. With the advent of deep-sea submarines, we realized these once thought sterile worlds erupt with life at the opening of every thermal vent found. Where there is no supportive supply available i.e. no vents, we see sterile, but this sterile zone is teaming with tens of thousands of years of DNA awaiting a chance to erupt into life, just as the nutrient rich thermal vent erupts from the sea floor vast amounts of nutritive substances that make life grow. It happened at the dawn of life, it happens on the floor of the oceans, it happens in your teeth, it is more prevalent throughout the world than any other biological system on Earth. Yes, this very same process happens, could happen, in our treatment zones but unfortunately throughout the years, we and the majority in the microbiological field have been too naive to recognize that within that world which predominates biological life, and operates throughout every ecosystem identified on this plant, is where the key to sustainable bioremediation 4.0. Biofilm predominates organic life and why, for life of me, would environmental remediation specialists believe our systems, a geobiological one, operate any different from every other biological process on the planet. Are we that special?
It is within a biofilm that non-planktonic microbial populations perform gene sharing 10-100x that performed in bulk water; water itself can move within a biofilm >10x faster than as bulk water and, biofilm provides the microbial population immunity from predation, an attribute key to survival and sustainability. It was and remains paramount for microbial based remediation to be sustainable that we can create a world, a world our industry has yet to examine, that makes the surroundings about them inconsequential to their abilities to perform at elevated levels.
It is time to recognize Bioremediation 4.0 and the role biostimulation alone can play in maximizing contaminant destruction while reducing the impacts, costs, and intensive abuse to the environment current strategies typically employ. As my father always said, it’s the KISS principle kid, keep it simple, you fill in the blank. Biostimulation is not augmentation, does not require extensive identification, it simply affords indigenous microbial populations the conditions necessary to support maximum growth and performance. They are there, maybe in small numbers but that is to be expected, the environment they are trying to survive in is contaminated! Render the zone supportive of complete growth and both operating and dormant ultra-microbacteria (UMB) waiting in starvation mode will return in masse. Stop worrying about what the individual planktonic (swimming) microbe can do, it’s what the consortium of populations collectively do as the biofilm forms and functions, in ways often similar to multicellular organisms, that must become our focus.
Reassessing our approaches and the value and ‘intelligence’ of procaryotic bacteria
A treatment zone is an environment/ecosystem, like any other on the planet, maybe not in terms of complexity but identical in terms of every other ecosystem in requiring necessary nutritional and foundational support to function properly. When contaminants enter the subsurface, it is typically in volumes that overwhelm the ecosystem and in doing so, scavenge the majority of materials necessary to support microbial life and QSS behaviours; limiting growth, limiting communications, limiting gene sharing and ultimately, limiting performance. Historically, traditional bioadditives are heralded as supportive of planktonic, swimming microbes growth with the assumption being increased numbers of planktonic bacteria equates to proven increases in performance. However, with these increases of ‘beneficial’ bacteria we also see increased numbers of non-beneficial and those microbes that maybe just don’t care. We at TerraStryke submit the results are only coincidental, faux supportive data, and view such performances as coincidental and incompletely successful applications of foundational bioremediation strategies. Do not be fooled! Do traditional single component ‘gene-therapy’ planktonic application strategies support the environment and maximum microbial performance, as life intended? At TerraStryke, and the emerging Bioremediation 4.0 principles show, these traditional biological approaches to remediation fail to acknowledge the critical importance that indigenous microbial populations achieve, in forming protective biofilms and increasing levels of communication, information sharing and cooperative alignments to achieve maximization utilization of available energy i.e. contaminants.
We must reassess our approaches, reassess the value and ‘intelligence’ of procaryotic bacteria and learn to assist them in their quest to achieve and perform at levels Mother Nature intended. Historically, and still within our industry, procaryotic bacteria are viewed as lone, solitary beings that with a single strand of DNA and no nucleus, what can they do? What can they do! Just ask the medical community, ask the dental community, ask infectious disease experts, ask the oilman pigging pipelines, they all know these lone solitary beings are incredibly capable of achieving growth and behavioural patterns that defy modern medicine and mitigation technologies (just as a sufferer of Cystic Fibrosus), causing plaque, reducing flow because these solitary beings realize their value is not as individuals but rather, their power and success is in sharing information and working collectively as a consortium of intra-inter specie microbes; working in unison to develop systems that collectively maximize the use of available energy similar in manner to that of eukaryotic organisms.
When the ecosystem about them is capable of supporting life, as Nature intended, these microbes assess their environment, take a census of who is about them, direct one another to change phenotypic characteristics and abandon their planktonic state to that of a sessile being. As this occurs, they collectively secrete biosurfactant-like materials and build structures within which they align themselves and assume roles beneficial to the community, not their individual existence. This alignment allows waste transport efficiency and enhanced utilization and sharing of electrons, creates nutrient sinks and through endogenous decay allows levels of sustainability that in the field has extended decades after a single amending event. Electron transfer and horizontal gene transfer (HGT) are believed to occur 100x faster within biofilm structures than in the bulk water. Water itself is directed through channels, constructed by the consortium, to allow it’s movement 10-100x faster than in the bulk water surrounding the biofilm. All this adds up to increased efficiencies in contaminant destruction, increased efficiencies in the solubilization of residual (sorbed, ganglia, stringers, blebs, etc.) source mass, and real time adaptation of the consortium to actual treatment zone conditions and contaminant/energy availabilities.
Better understanding the microbial community
We need to focus not on the individual planktonic swimmer and the capabilities its strand of DNA holds when within a bulk water environment; rather, we need to focus on the collective group of individual microbes who uniformly abandoned a planktonic life and their associated ‘roles’ for a sessile world within a biofilm; free from predation, free from bulk water effects, sharing genetic information with a lazer-focus, attaining reportable and measurable field metrics by which such development can be tracked, confirmed and monitored. We need to better understand the microbial community working in unison, how the genetic characteristics and expressions differ from those characteristics of the same microbe when planktonic. What we do know is community-based biofilm entrapped microbial populations share information in real time, adapt to existing site conditions in real time, and harness dormant and newly revived DNA from 10s of thousands of years past to address, manipulate and exploit their environment sustainably. This is how microbes developed and mastered their primordial environment, a caustic soup of everything toxic that, as a swimming microbe you stood little chance of survival; but, as they communicated and shared information, changing phenotypically from planktonic to sessile within protective structures the community(s) themselves build, they survived and proliferated; and in fact, led to the establishment of eukaryotic bacteria, i.e. you and me. Procaryotic bacteria are older, more organized, and 4.5 billion years more experience at this thing called life vs. eucaryotic bacteria.
4.5 billion years ago the primordial soup of life was boiling, basically done. 100,000 years later single cell bacteria appeared in this harsh ever changing and volatile world, even then the soup was still cooking. Swimmers (planktonic bacteria) then, and now, were/are widely scattered, exposed to predation and subject to simple changes in pH and temperature that made the bulk water world toxic and hazardous for survival. We now recognize that it was during these primordial times procaryotic bacteria developed abilities to change their phenotypes, willingly lose the ability to swim and become sessile in response to concentration-based triggers; density, and the concentration of autoinducing signals being key to this profound shift in behaviours, opportunities, and physical capabilities.
As microbial signaling increases, individuals as a community begin to collectively secrete biosurfactant like compounds, polysachharides and peptides to form the biofilm structure(s). These secretions also assist the solubilization of sorbed contaminant mass (food/respiratory source). ‘Biofilms’ have within them established channels for water transport. Structures that allow microbes to align themselves and maximize electron transfer, at levels beyond that tradition tells us procaryotic bacteria could. Biofilm structures are widely diverse, mono specie, dual specie, multi specie in composition. It has been observed the more diverse the greater levels of performance due to the greater level of genetic diversity and potentials for genetic sharing and real-time adaptation. Biofilm is believed to consist of 3-6% microbials, 10-15% peptides and polysaccharides and the rest, water. Furthermore, in a biofilm, amoebas and others cannot predate on the bacteria within. Biofilm allows microbes to sequester necessary food, respiratory and nutrient sources to allow for a sustainable existing through endogenous decay. With this structure they work collectively under anaerobic conditions to maximize energy utilization which, to our industry means, contaminant degradation and, of extreme significance, biofilm provides protection that negates the adverse conditions in the bulk water around them.
A sea of change is occurring in the remediation industry, a change mainly involving our catching up with existing awareness regarding QSS. We at TerraStryke strive to be pioneers in promoting Bioremediation 4.0 and the need to focus on the holistic ecosystem based on the concept of collective communication and information, electron, and resource sharing amongst the consortium of bacteria, not planktonic.