Archive | Microorganisms

Bacteria Used to Power Simple Machines

ARGONNE, Ill., Dec. 16 (UPI) — U.S. Department of Energy scientists say they’ve used common bacteria to power simple machines, providing insight for creating bio-inspired energy production.

The researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University said they discovered bacteria can turn microgears when suspended in a solution.

“The gears are a million times more massive than the bacteria,” said physicist Igor Aronson, who led the study. “The ability to harness and control the power of bacterial motions is an important requirement for further development of hybrid biomechanical systems driven by microorganisms.”

The scientists discovered the aerobic bacteria, Bacillus subtilis, appear to swim around the solution randomly, but occasionally the organisms will collide with the spokes of the gear and begin turning it in a definite direction. The researchers then added a few hundred bacteria which worked together to turn the gear.

When multiple gears are placed in the solution with the spokes connected, the bacteria will begin turning both gears in opposite directions and it will cause the gears to rotate in synchrony for a long time, the scientists said.

“Our discovery demonstrates how microscopic swimming agents, such as bacteria or man-made nanorobots, in combination with hard materials can constitute a ‘smart material’ which can dynamically alter its microstructures, repair damage or power microdevices,” Aronson said.

The research is reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Energy, Energy & Fuels, Energy Conservation, Energy Efficiency, Microorganisms0 Comments

Ornamental Plants Useful in Removing Nitrogen & Phosphorus in Stormwater Runoff

HAMMOND, La., Dec. 11 (UPI) — Ornamental plants, such as canna, have proved beneficial in removing nitrogen and phosphorus from stormwater runoff, scientists in Louisiana said.

Excess nitrate-nitrogen and soluble reactive phosphorus degrade water quality and spur the growth of oxygen-depleting microorganisms.

Scientists at Louisiana State University grew canna and other ornamentals, such as iris, calla lily, and dwarf papyrus in stormwater mitigation projects.

Grown in floating wetland systems in warmer climates, the ornamentals proved both attractive to the eye and environmentally friendly in removing excess nitrogen and phosphorus, researcher Yan Chen said in a release Thursday.

Australian canna showed the greatest potential because it is a perennial grown year round, can be harvested regularly and offers the most consistent removal of excess nutrients, Yan Chen’s team said.

Future research will evaluate planting densities, harvesting frequency and growth maintenance techniques.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Microorganisms, Other0 Comments

Canadian Researchers Study New Way to Fight Bacteria

Canadian researchers say they’ve identified a chemical compound that targets drug-resistant bacteria in a different way from existing antibiotics.

McMaster University scientists say their discovery is an ideal starting point to develop new interventions for resistant infections. Despite the need for new treatment options, the scientists note there have been only two new classes of antibiotics developed during the last 40 years.

Professor Eric Brown and colleagues from the Michael DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research said the compound could lead to new treatments to overcome antibiotic resistance in certain types of microorganisms.

“Everyone reads the headlines about drug-resistant bugs, it’s a big problem,” said Brown. “Really what we’re trying to do is understand whether or not there are new ways to tackle this problem.”

Existing antibiotics destroy bacteria by blocking production of its cell wall, DNA or protein. The new McMaster-discovered compound, MAC13243, is directed at blocking a particular step in the development of the bacteria’s cell surface, which until now has not been recognized as a target for antibiotics.

“We’re excited about finding a new probe of a relatively uncharted part of bacterial physiology,” Brown said. “It’s a new way of thinking about the problem.”

The findings appear in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Posted in Microorganisms, Other0 Comments

Great Pacific Garbage Patch Of The Pacific To Be Studied By Marine Scientist

A team of 30 University of California research scientist will set sail from Scripps Institution of Oceanography this Sunday to the Northwest Pacific ocean to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The garbage patch is an accumulated mass of mainly small, plastic debris trapped by the North Pacific Gyre that spans across hundred of miles of the Pacific ocean.

The debris ends up concentrated by circular, clockwise ocean currents within an oblong-shaped “convergence zone” hundreds of miles (km) across from end to end near the Hawaiian Islands, about midway between Japan and the West Coast of the United States.

The research team will studying the amount of debris that has been collected, how it is distributed by the North Pacific Gyre, and how it affects the marine life. The marine life the scientist will mainly concentrate on are microorganisms, such as plankton, birds and various types of fish.

Little is know about the scope of impact the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has on ocean and it’s inhabitants and how what affect it does have on lower, food chain organisms. The garbage patch shifts thousands of miles seasonally, which makes studying this suspended field of plastic debris extremely hard.

For more information and futher reading on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, please click through to the full article.

Posted in Birds, Fish, Microorganisms, Recycling & Waste0 Comments

Nano Coatings Stem Water-Pipe Clogs

Researchers at Duke University have come to respect the power of nano-engineered buckyballs.

In one project, the engineers found that ultrafine mesh coatings made of carbon buckyballs can hinder the ability of bacteria and other microorganisms to colonize the membranes that filter impurities from water. This is one of the major problems – and costs – in treating H2O.

The bacteria builds up and attracts other organic matter. In time, a film of biological material accumulates. A reduction in membrane-replacement cost, even of 50 percent, would translate to huge savings.

“Biofouling is viewed as one of the biggest costs associated with membrane-based water-treatment systems,” said Claudia Gunsch, assistant professor of civil engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and senior member of the research team.

A buckyball is one shape within the family of nano-carbon shapes known as fullerenes. They’re both named after Richard Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome, because their shapes resemble his famous structure.

When water-filtering membranes are treated with buckyballs, the researchers discovered that only a very small number of bacteria (20 units) are able to colonize on the surface material.

The Duke researchers plan to study other species of bacteria that would be encountered in the same kind of water treatment environments. And they plan to scale their system to simulate application in a full-scale treatment plant.

“Just as plaque can build up inside arteries and reduce the flow of blood, bacteria and other microorganisms can over time attach and accumulate on water treatment membranes and along water pipes,” said So-Ryong Chae, post-doctoral fellow in Duke’s environmental and civil engineering department in a release. Experimental results were published March 5, 2009 in the Journal of Membrane Sciences.

In a separate research effort, scientists at the University of Leeds are working on a way to use bacteria to help clean foul water.

Harmful chromium compounds are commonly found in groundwater at sites receiving waste from former textile factories, smelters and tanneries. This wastewater has been linked to cancer.

Dr. Doug Stewart heads the research team from the school of civil engineering and has discovered that adding dilute acetic acid (vinegar) can stimulate bacteria strains capable of converting chromium into a harmless substance.

Researchers plan to further study the bacteria and conditions under which it can operate. This environmentally sensitive approach to cleanup should be welcome. But we’ll have to wait a few years to see if these systems become widespread. –Lee Bruno

Posted in Engineering, Microorganisms, Other0 Comments

Bristol Robotics Laboratory Creates Microbial Fuel Cell Robots that Feed Themselves

We live in a world of technology. Our kids grow up with computers as one of their best friends. They even mature together: The kids who grow up expect their systems to grow with them, which means that old computers are constantly replaced with new ones. Technology is evolving faster than we ever thought possible and I doubt that anyone will be surprised when machines become almost independent of their creators.

The biggest problem with self sustaining machinery is fuel. Just like we consume countless varieties of foods to keep us going throughout the day, a machine’s hunger pangs are generally alleviated with gas, electricity and batteries. The ideal machine, however, should be able to ‘survive’ on naturally occurring foods that are sustainable and abundant.

Science projects today, voracious
self-serving servants tomorrow.
(Image: Bristol Robotics Lab.)

This is where the Ecobot comes into play. Engineers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory were motivated by the idea of developing autonomous robots able to collect energy from their surroundings, foraging for items like rotten fruit (similar to any other animal), while eliminating unnecessary waste from their systems after having consumed the ‘meal’. The design is nothing short of genius (if not eerie) and revolves around the robot’s Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC).

Bristol explains the MFC design for their Ecobot model: “the Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology is employed to extract electrical energy from refined foods such as sugar and unrefined foods such as insects and fruit. This is achieved by extracting electrons from the microbial metabolic processes. To be truly autonomous, robots will be required to incorporate in their behavioral repertoire actions that involve searching, collecting and digesting food. The robot will be designed to remain inactive until sufficient energy has been generated to complete its next task.”

The first Ecobot (aptly titled Ecobot I) was developed in 2002. E.coli bacteria were incorporated into the design and they powered the robot after ingesting sugar. The first ecobot was a small, simple robot that used the microbial energy charging its fuel cells to do nothing more than roll towards areas with more light. The light-loving Ecobot is described as a “960g robot, powered by microbial fuel cells (MFCs)…This robot does not use any other form of power source such as batteries or solar panels. It is 22cm in diameter and 7.5cm high.”

In 2004, an alternative robot was developed that used sludge microbes instead of E.coli bacteria. These sludge microbes seem more capable; digesting more complicated foods like dead insects and waste (like rotting produce) to fuel the MFC. Also, this technology seems much more beneficial to the environment.

Bristol has also been working on an underwater version of an ecobot that uses mechanical ‘gills’ to strain microorganisms into its fuel cell.

It is important to note that the robots developed by the laboratory are the first step towards the creation of incredible machines that are comparable to metal animals-foraging for foods that naturally surround them when fuel cells run low. Bristol’s findings are essential for the development of these complicated machines. Right now all we see is potential, but it would be incredible to have robots slurping up garbage strewn through parks, simultaneously cleaning up our messes and energizing themselves in the process. But, that is a long way off.

Posted in Animals, Electricity, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Fuel Cells, Microorganisms, Other, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar1 Comment

Onsite Wastewater Treatment

The trend towards infrastructure decentralization is well understood with respect to energy production. Since humanity’s collective energy requirements will double in the next generation – even with extraordinary improvements in energy efficiency – thousands of new utility scale energy developments will compete with, for example, millions of solar arrays deployed on rooftops.

Another example of infrastructure decentralization is in the many waste-to-energy technologies under development. These solutions have utility scale applications, but also onsite applications, as reported in our recent post “Onsite Waste-to-Energy.” In both of these areas, energy production, and disposal of municipal solid waste, there is a great deal of overlap where centralized solutions vs. decentralized solutions display remarkable parity when considering overall costs to implement.

Treating wastewater, however, is not only another area where decentralized solutions are rapidly evolving, but appears to offer a broader range of situations where decentralized wastewater solutions are already clearly more more cost effective than utility scale solutions. In recent years these decentralized sewage treatment applications have become not only much cheaper to implement, but deliver better solutions for aquifer health and overall watershed management.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, in the United States there are 16,000 major wastewater treatment facilities. All of these large plants collect sewage from urbanized areas through large, usually gravity fed pipes, discharging the treated water well downstream from the source. Because these plants are so big, and the collection pipes so old, and because maintenance on many of these thousands of systems has been deferred for years if not decades, it is often no longer cost-effective to tap into these legacy systems to accomodate new construction.

Meanwhile, small-scale wastewater treatment systems that have traditionally been installed are not representative of technologies available today. Many communities rely on wells for drinking water and ideally wish to recycle this water back into the aquifers onsite. Their onsite water treatment systems are inadequate to meet today’s water standards, however, so while they are properly replenishing their aquifers with localized systems, often the percolating wastewater is not sufficiently cleaned and is degrading the overall quality of the aquifer. But the cost of upgrading these systems and deploying modern decentralized systems to accomodate new construction in rural areas and outlying suburbs is far cheaper than the cost to extend sewers upstream to service every remote home or community.

AquaTech’s patented trickling filter
uses gravity to increase efficiency
(Diagram: AquaTech Systems)

One company addressing this burgeoning market for cost effective onsite wastewater treatment is AquaTech Systems, based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with installed systems all over the world. The array of solutions they offer provide a compelling illustration of just how much money a developer or a municipality can save by going off-grid with their waste water treatment infrastructure.

For example, the cost to extend “big pipe” gravity fed sewers into small communities can cost as much as $40 per linear foot, even without rock excavation. A typical bill to an individual homesite – whether they are upgrading or for new construction – can be over $20,000 per connection. By using smaller diameter pressure sewer pipe, the cost can be reduced to under $5.00 per linear foot. In turn, these collection pipes can feed into small scale treatment plants located within the local community, reducing the diameter and length of total pipe required by orders of magnitude.

Similarly, the cost per household to finance a small scale wastewater treatment plant can be significantly lower than tying into a large urban water treatment plant. These small scale facilities now can treat wastewater to standards comparable to the larger facilities, while releasing the treated water into the aquifers onsite upstream, instead of conveying raw sewage through often leaking pipes to be treated at a central facility well downstream.

Some of the technologies that have made cost effective quality onsite water treatment a reality include fixed film treatment processes that have been systematically improved over the past 20 years. AquaTech Systems offers the “BioTank” treatment reactor, a container-sized module utilizing microorganisms that adhere to a high surface area media submerged in the wastewater. Much of this process borrows from large scale water treatment plants, but now that the microbial process is better understood, and with advances in materials such as high surface area media, today it is possible to offer high quality wastewater treatment at the scale of a neighborhood or small community.

Aquatech Systems offers a number of innovative solutions, such as a “trickling filter” that recirculates effluent through a tower shaped bioreactor. This configuration allows the treatment process to be accelerated by taking advantage of gravity to move the effluent through the microbial digesters. All of AquaTech System’s solutions are modular and can be scaled to address the needs of anywhere from 10 to 10,000 households.
post resumes below image

The container-sized AquaTech bioreactor is available in
modules and can accomodate from 10 to 10,000 households.
(Diagram: AquaTech Systems)

The promise of off-grid solutions is not only of immense value to developed nations such as the United States, where the crippling cost of inefficient public sector bureaucracies nearly precludes necessary infrastructure upgrades, but equally throughout the world. In nations without legacy investments in grids for communications, energy, and treatment of solid waste and wastewater, advanced decentralized solutions will offer emerging nations dramatically more cost effective opportunities to build a 21st century infrastructure.

Posted in Drinking Water, Energy, Energy Efficiency, Infrastructure, Microorganisms, Solar4 Comments

Cost-Effective Wastewater Treatment

Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Plant
This decentralized treatment plant
has the capacity to serve 1,500 households.

Editor’s Note: Not quite a year ago we ran a report entitled Decentralized Wastewater Systems, and this update begins where the earlier report ended. Instead of a system to service 150 homes, this report describes a system to service 1,500 homes. Here then, the viability of decentralized solutions to wastewater treatment is being proven at a scale an order of magnitude greater than the earlier example. The vast areas between the simple septic tank that serves a single home, and the massive wastewater treatment plant that services an urban area with millions of homes, is being filled in with solutions at any intermediate scale, thanks to innovative entrepreneurs and continuously improving technologies.

And just as in the example of the single home’s septic system, or a small subdivision’s system to handle 150 homes, at the scale of a 1,500 home small town, the treated water percolates back into the aquifers or provides subsurface irrigation, instead of traveling way downstream to a massive treatment plant – leaking raw sewage into the ground through cracks in the big pipes, mile after mile, often only to then disappear after treatment into river runoff or the ocean. Decentralized solutions not only replenish aquifers and replace irrigation water; they avoid the necessity to install miles of sewage pipe at staggering expense, pipe that ultimately begins to leak.

The libertarian potential of decentralized energy and water solutions is only beginning to be understood, much less implemented, but stories like this, where a new community implements a cost-effective, off-grid solution that is arguably environmentally superior to hooking into the grid, provide inspiration. Often technological solutions auger political changes. Will the powerful vested interests that control our municipalities adapt and embrace decentralized solutions? That they will eventually is a given, but how soon will the public sector easily recognize situations where decentralized solutions to energy and water infrastructure provide the superior option?

What is most encouraging is the prospect of seeing decentralized infrastructure proliferate, allowing existing grid to be upgraded to integrate synergistically – so the public utilities buy and sell water, wastewater services, and energy in a free-market driven, interactive relationship with privately held decentralized installations. – Ed “Redwood” Ring

Cost-effective Wastewater Treatment – Biological Reactor and Fixed-film Aeration Provides Decentralized Solution for 1,500 Home Community
by Tom Bartlett, CEO, Aquatech Systems, September 30, 2008
Reducers being installed for the air
release valves in drip field return lines.

When six land developers wanted to build contiguous subdivisions on the periphery of Cave Springs, Arkansas, they realized one system to handle wastewater for all six subdivisions would be a more cost-effective solution than six individual systems.

Our solution, proposed to the lead developer, Brett Hash (Northwest Services LLC), required two phases: a 92,400 GPD installation, to be followed by a 320,000 GPD installation. The first installation, called “Fairway Valley Phase 1,” went into operation in January 2008 and treats water from 450 homes.

This first 92,400 GPD system was designed by Daniel Lazenby of ESI Engineering, located in Springdale, Arkansas. The major components are:

- 1,250 gallon STEP (septic tank effluent pumping) systems

- 33,000 gallon equalization tank including two 30-GPM pumps and a control panel

- Moving-bed biological reactor

- Submerged fixed-film aeration unit

- 15,000 gallon settling tank

- 15,000 gallon sludge-holding tank

- 25,000 gallon dosing tank including four 55-GPM (2 horsepower) and two 85-GPM (3 horsepower) turbine effluent pumps

- 1/2 inch pressure-compensated driplines on 2 foot centers including valves and headworks

- Four custom-designed control panels

The completed treatment plant, occupying a surprisingly small
footprint, just awaits some landscaping to completely blend in.

The system has been operating now for nearly one year. Wastewater flows from the homes to the gravity fed STEP systems, where in-turn it is pumped to force mains varying from either 2″, 4″ or 6″ diameters. These force mains run to a lift station which pumps the sewage through a 10″ trunk line to the 10′x53′ equalization tank. Pumps then send timed increments of sewage into the rest of the treatment system. When flows exceed the 92,400 GPD capacity, the phase two system will be activated.

The operation of the treatment system provides a good example of how decentralized sewage treatment plants can deliver solutions not only more cost-effective than individual home or neighborhood systems, but also are cost competitive with larger scale municipal systems. From the equalization tank, the sludge is pumped into the stainless steel reactor chamber, where aerators create turbulence that tumbles the sewage, creating a moving bed. Bacteria grow on 1″ round plastic disks that are free floating and have honeycomb interiors that allow scouring and slouging. This pretreatment can reduce BOD and TSS by 50-60 percent; the moving bed also eliminates dead zones.

From the reactor chamber, effluent flows next into the submerged fixed-film chamber. Microorganisms digest more sludge, and fine air diffusers mix the effluent, allowing the sludge to settle. Sludge that settles onto the bottom of the tank is pumped into a sludge-holding tank, where liquid that may continue to rise from sludge in the sludge holding tank is in-turn pumped back into the equalization chamber.

Installed supply and
return lines in dripfield.

As effluent is clarified in the fixed-film chamber, it rolls over a weir into a settling tank where BOD and TSS are further reduced to a level of 15 mg/l, which is compliant with the septic code and ready to go to the dosing tank in preparation for pumping to the dripfield. The dosing varies according to each dripfield since they have different loading rates. The largest dripfield has four zones totalling 100,000 feet of tubing, and is directly beneath a golf course driving range. The dripfield that will be used in phase two will have six zones and will lie beneath a fairway.

Our solution allowed the developers to actually build at a higher density than they would have been able to if they had constructed individual septic systems per home – they ended up building on average 3 homes per acre instead of the originally planned 1.5, and the STEP tanks were installed and connected to the phase one treatment plant as the homes were built. Although the microorganisms in the treatment plant take longer to establish themselves since the initial demands on the plant are well below its capacity, as the flow increases the microorganisms will build themselves up until the plant is at full capacity.

The treatment plant was sited across the parking lot from the clubhouse at the local golfcourse, allowing a relatively central location relative to the six subdivisions and, of course, convenient proximity to the open space on the fairways for the drip systems. The drip lines were buried 10 inches deep with an emitter every two feet. The discharge was designed to be level with the roots to irrigate the grass and enhance evapotranspiration or soaking into the ground.

Once the system was installed and operating, the developers handed the system over to the city.

Tom Bartlett Portrait

Tom Bartlett is the CEO of Aqua Tech Systems, specializing in the decentralized approach to wastewater systems and management. Serving a wide range of private and public clients, Aquatech utilizes a collaborative approach with equipment companies, land planners, engineers, private consultants, utility providers, lending institutions and contractors to develop tailored solutions for infrastructure design. Founded in 1999, Aqua Tech Systems and its affiliates are professionals dedicated to providing wastewater solutions for the growing needs of today’s communities, providing the necessary resources to allow their clients to make decisions that are economically sound, environmentally responsible and socially equitable. Based in Arkansas and servicing clients all over North America, Aquatech can be reached at 479-527-9880 and Tom Bartlett can be reached directly at 479-530-7922 or emailed at

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Posted in Energy, Engineering, Landscaping, Microorganisms5 Comments

Amyris Biotechnologies Develops Living Factories

Up to 300 million people die from malaria every year. A female mosquito, riddled with malaria parasites, is responsible for transmitting the disease. The malaria parasites are carried in the mosquito’s saliva, which mingles with a human’s blood once they are bitten. Now in the blood stream, malaria parasites travel to the liver and multiply until they burst out of the liver cells and migrate into red blood cells. The infected individual is overrun with symptoms, ranging from, vomiting, convulsions, anemia, renal failure, tingling skin to coma and ultimately death. The waves of fever typical of malaria correlate with the parasites exploding out of the bulging infected red-blood-cells within the host’s body. This terrible disease is one of the most common in the world.

Medication does exist, but the sad irony is that the poorer countries with the highest concentration of malaria can not afford these artemisinin-based drugs. Artemisinin, the only real effective malaria medication, is derived from wormwood. Its production is an incredibly time consuming and expensive process. With this in mind, Amyris Biotechnologies set out to engineer a microorganism to produce the drug. In a sense, Amyris is now using one microbe to kill another.

In most countries with endemic malaria, the
disease risk is limited to certain areas.

A visit to Amyris’ homepage gives readers more of an insight to how much potential there is with biotechnology: “Amyris Biotechnologies is translating the promise of synthetic biology into solutions for real-world problems. Building on advances in molecular, cell and systems biology, we are engineering microbes capable of producing high-value compounds to address major global health and energy challenges. We are employing these living chemical factories to produce novel pharmaceuticals, renewable fuels, and specialty chemicals.”

Amyris has found a way to genetically manipulate microorganisms into producing artemisinin. Amyris succeeded in developing these living medicine factories with the help of U.C Berkeley labs, the Institute for One World Health and with a $ 42 million grant provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Amyris is not only dedicated to fighting malaria, however. Another major venture involves the “development of a fermentation process that uses custom-designed microbes to renewably produce second-generation, high-performance biofuels that are cost-effective and compatible with current automotive and distribution technologies,” explains Amyris. These gas and diesel substitutes are produced with the same feedstocks that are used to make ethanol, such as sugar cane.

Amyris has received worldwide recognition for their innovative ideas: In 2005, Amyris Biotechnologies was named a winner at the World Technology Network. In 2008, history repeated itself when Amyris had the honor of being voted the biofuel category winner at GoingGreen 2008.

Posted in Chemicals, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Engineering, Ideas, Humanities, & Education, Microorganisms, People3 Comments

Amazonian Terra Preta

Once in a while you run across something that challenges just about everything you thought you knew. “Terra preta” (Portuguese for “black earth”) are anomalous deposits of deep, rich soil found in large pockets of land throughout the Amazon. Once thought to be 100% comprised of thin, fragile soil that would immediately desertify if the trees were removed, it now turns out there are significant sections of Amazonia where this terra preta is abundant. But the biggest mystery is this: The Amazon’s best soil, terra preta, possibly was deliberately created by Native Americans.

The Amazon basin’s best soil, agrichar, possibly
was deliberately created by Native Americans.

As put forth in 2002 in a lengthy article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “1491″ by Charles C. Mann, there is a growing body of evidence that the indigenous population of the Americas in pre-colombian times was far greater than is typically estimated.

In Mann’s report several thought provoking bits of evidence are presented: The great mass of carrier pigeons that filled the skies and the great masses of bison that dominated the endless prairies in the 18th century were not always there – if they had always been there, in archeological sites we would see their bones in far greater abundance. Instead they were “outbreak species,” whose numbers mushroomed in the wake of human demographic collapse. Read the article for more arguments supporting this new theory – which basically says the impact of European disease on Native American populations was far, far greater than previously conjectured, and in fact abruptly destroyed a network of complex urban civilizations numbering well over 100 million people.

The presence of Amazonian terra preta is another piece of evidence allegedly supporting this theory, because the placement of these deposits of charcoal rich black earth are not explained without human intervention. The theory holds that this black earth was created by a process called “slash and char,” something very distinct from slash and burn. In this process the seasonal crop residue was not burned, but charred and turned into the earth. Doing this sequestered most of the carbon in the crop residue, and created an extremely hospitable amendment to the otherwise thin and fragile soil – something that in turn nurtured beneficial microorganisms that broke down the poor native soil and transformed it in to extraordinarily rich humus. Read this from “1491″:

“Landscape” in this case is meant exactly—Amazonian Indians literally created the ground beneath their feet. According to William I. Woods, a soil geographer at Southern Illinois University, ecologists’ claims about terrible Amazonian land were based on very little data. In the late 1990s Woods and others began careful measurements in the lower Amazon. They indeed found lots of inhospitable terrain. But they also discovered swaths of terra preta—rich, fertile “black earth” that anthropologists increasingly believe was created by human beings.

Terra preta, Woods guesses, covers at least 10 percent of Amazonia, an area the size of France. It has amazing properties, he says. Tropical rain doesn’t leach nutrients from terra preta fields; instead the soil, so to speak, fights back. Not far from Painted Rock Cave is a 300-acre area with a two-foot layer of terra preta quarried by locals for potting soil. The bottom third of the layer is never removed, workers there explain, because over time it will re-create the original soil layer in its initial thickness. The reason, scientists suspect, is that terra preta is generated by a special suite of microorganisms that resists depletion. Apparently at some threshold level … dark earth attains the capacity to perpetuate—even regenerate itself—thus behaving more like a living ‘super’-organism than an inert material.

In as yet unpublished research the archaeologists Eduardo Neves, of the University of São Paulo; Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida; and their colleagues examined terra preta in the upper Xingu, a huge southern tributary of the Amazon. Not all Xingu cultures left behind this living earth, they discovered. But the ones that did generated it rapidly—suggesting to Woods that terra preta was created deliberately. In a process reminiscent of dropping microorganism-rich starter into plain dough to create sourdough bread, Amazonian peoples, he believes, inoculated bad soil with a transforming bacterial charge. Not every group of Indians there did this, but quite a few did, and over an extended period of time.”

If rich topsoil was literally engineered by humans on this scale, this is an encouraging possibility to address the today’s challenges of depleted soils and desertification. Organizations have sprung up to study the potential of employing similar techniques today, creating what is now referred to as biochar (or agrichar), such as the International Biochar Initiative. And the notion that Native Americans manipulated and nurtured the ecosystems of the Amazon over 500 years ago also challenges today’s conventional definitions of what is pristine – indeed by taking away one of our most reliable archetypes of living without a footprint – perhaps shakes the whole idea of pristine wilderness to its roots. And needless to say, if carbon sequestration is truly an imperative for our species, creating biochar could hold more potential – and side benefits – than virtually any other scheme.

Posted in Microorganisms, Organizations, Other, Trees & Forestry14 Comments

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