Environmental biotechnology is the application of biotechnology in the natural environment. This could be to primarily sustain the environment by using eco-friendly biological processes. Some of these processes could be used to solve the most demanding environmental problems like controlling air emissions and water pollution. Developing countries in Asia and elsewhere have high levels of atmospheric pollution (both air and water), and coupled with their growth in population, creates enormous sewage and waste disposal problems.

Converting the leaves and stalks of maize (corn stover), algae and cellulose (from wood and grass) into bio fuels can greatly reduce green house gas emissions, comparatively in terms of fuel obtained from fossil sources. And it costs less to make biofuel in terms of energy requirements too. This is one way how biotechnology can be used to lower carbon dioxide emission levels.

Improper disposal of solid and hazardous waste not only damages the environment but causes the maximum health problems. Incineration was earlier considered the best way of disposing solid wastes, especially domestic wastes. Although it is still being done in developing economies, it is no longer so in the developed world. And biotechnological processes are responsible for that. Today using the process of anaerobic digestion, bio-degradable solid wastes can be converted to bio-gas and usable organic material. Furthermore, anaerobic digestion is progressing to a stage, that in future it may not be necessary to separate bio-degradable solid waste from the total solid waste, before starting anaerobic digestion to make bio gas and so on.

Let's reflect on how environmental biotechnology processes impact sewage treatment. In the treatment of sewage water, biotechnological techniques can be used to introduce especially cultured aerobic, anerobic or facultative bacteria, which also happen to be inexpensive. These micro organisms along with their enzyme systems can effectively carry out bacterial reduction of organic matter in waste water of sewages. Not only that, when anaerobic bacteria are used in sewage water treatment, biogas can be produced. So at one level, cleaning up hazardous waste in the environment is an application of environmental biotechnology. The same technology when applied to waste systems of other industries produces important byproducts. For example, in penicillin manufacture, the fungal biomass that remains after making penicillin can be converted to animal feed using advanced biotechnology techniques. This is an example of an inconvenient effluent being converted to a useful product using biotechnology, apart from helping to keep the environment clean.

Environmental biotechnology helps create industrial manufacturing processes that are eco friendly. In fact, industrial manufacturing processes are being reconfigured to ensure that they don't discharge toxic effluents that harm the environment. For example, using fungi, the effluent coming out of paper making factories is scrubbed and cleaned. But biotechnology is also capable of making intrinsic changes to several manufacturing processes which results in considerable savings in energy requirements. The result is a cleaner and safer environment. An example is the use of enzyme catalysts over non-biological catalysts with greater energy savings. Bleaching process in textile industry needs chemicals that can now be substituted with enzymes causing lesser effluents and requiring lesser energy; the hazardous chlorine gas can be avoided in the paper industry giving rise to lesser environmental safety issues. So, not only is industrial manufacturing technology undergoing rapid change due to the impact of biotechnology, more importantly, this is happening at the raw material stage, process technology stage, and in the treatment of effluents, each of which is contributing to a cleaner environment in the long run.

Biotechnology helps assist in environmental monitoring. For example there are products that can help detect harmful and toxic soil pollutants (portable biotech products are available, so contamination can be assessed onsite). Plant and bacteria are used to remove soil pollutants using a process called bioremediation. The process is to add nutrients to the soil to activate the bacteria already present or by adding newer bacteria to the soil. In both cases these bacteria consume and convert toxic materials to harmless compounds although this is very much a modification of the same process that occurs naturally in sewage treatment. In fact what they do is, put in genetically altered microorganisms in bioremediation processes.

One of the practical applications of bioremediation is to use a combination of bacteria and plants to reconfigure any piece of land and make it free of toxic substances. For example, this technology can also help redevelop erstwhile industrial land into land that is suitable for human habitation, by removing contaminants in the soil and water. Bioremediation process not only handles soil impurities, but also impurities in the groundwater and surface water as well.

The environment in a farm is usually messy and requires constant physical labor in keeping the place clean and hygienic. But biotechnology products are now helping to keep the farm environment spick and span. For example, in livestock farms, biotechnology` helps maintain farm environment by degrading livestock manure, and in eliminating foul smelling gases like hydrogen sulfide. Not just that, but with specific reference to where the livestock is kept (confinement space), it helps keep a probiotic environment. These biotechnology products are usually a combination of potent waste digesting enzymes and selected strains of bacteria.

Governmental initiatives in propagating the continued growth of research in environmental biotechnology have been substantial. President Clinton's call for substantially increasing usage of bio-based products/fuels by 2010, and President Bush's 2003 impetus for research in hydrogen based fuel cells have been of particular significance. Therefore it would not be out of place to conclude that concepts of environmental biotechnology and its applications in the environment are slowly gaining ground, and one could rightly say that environmental biotechnology is surely turning green.

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Article written by: G.Padmakumar