Genome British Columbia

Genome British Columbia

November 04, 2009 15:15 ET

Genome BC: Genomic Research Will Enable Greener Cleanup of Military Explosive Test Sites

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwire - Nov. 4, 2009) - Lowly bacteria, it turns out, hold the power to help militaries and munitions manufacturing plants around the world clean up toxic waste on test sites.

Compounds known as nitramines, specifically RDX, were invented back in World War II and have been used in military munitions for decades. These high-energy compounds are often used to propel tank shells and act like a more powerful version of TNT.

But with increased knowledge of their environmentally harmful effects, Canadian and US militaries, along with others around the world are looking for ways to clean up their contaminated test sites.

Dr. Lindsay Eltis of UBC, is leading the Genome BC-funded project entitled, Genomic Studies of Explosives Biodegradation. The $3.45 million project will study how bacteria degrade RDX and determine how to maximize its potential for bioremediation.

"RDX is a rich source of nitrogen, and certain bacteria including Rhodococcus and Gordonia, have evolved to thrive on the contaminants this explosive leaves behind," says Eltis.

With a voracious appetite for toxic chemical compounds and a near indestructibility (some can survive even high levels of nuclear radiation), Eltis describes bacteria as the "ultimate garbage incinerators."

This Genome BC-funded research, which is also funded by the US Military, presents a welcome alternative to the current option for cleanup at these sites: a costly and invasive process which involves removing the top layer of soil, carting it away by dump truck and burning it in an incinerator.

Defence Research and Development Canada, an Agency of the Canadian Department of National Defense has assisted this research by providing soil samples. Dr. Sylvie Brochu is a Defense Scientist with the organization. "Protection of the environment is a high priority for DND. We are committed to conducting military training in a way that causes as little impact on the environment as possible. We are always looking for solutions to existing environmental problems and this research presents a natural solution that is very attractive."

"Genome BC is pleased to support such a novel and valuable project," says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO. "Bacteria mediated degradation of RDX is the key to a less invasive form of environmental cleanup of these test sites. The innovative genomic approach of this research holds great promise for useful technologies and improved bioremediation strategies."

About Genome BC
Founded in 2000, Genome BC works collaboratively with government, universities and industry as the catalyst for a genomics-driven life sciences cluster with significant social and economic benefits for the Province and Canada. The organization's research portfolio, over $410 million since inception, includes 74 projects and technology platforms focused on areas of strategic importance to British Columbia such as human health, forestry, fisheries, bioenergy, mining, agriculture, and the environment. Genome BC programs are funded by Genome Canada, the Provincial Government of British Columbia, Western Economic Diversification Canada and other public and private partners.

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Genomic research will enable greener clean up of military explosive test sites

Militaries around the world use nitramine chemicals as the source of the high energy needed to power explosives. Hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX) is a nitramine, which is commonly used to create these explosions. But RDX and other nitramines can contaminate the surface or subsoils of surrounding military sites at low but toxic levels.

On-site bioremediation using RDX-degrading microorganisms is a potential strategy to cleanup these contaminated sites, but is currently ineffective due to a lack of understanding about the biochemical and genetic pathways of nitramine-degrading bacteria.

This project aims to identify genes and processes that are involved in RDX bioremediation by focusing on one particular strain of bacteria called Gordonia sp. KTR9 also found in environmental samples.

Researchers will develop and use genomic technologies such as metagenomics and transcriptome data to determine which genes are functionally relevant to the degradation of nitramine-containing chemicals. Collaborations with the US military and the Canadian Department of National Defence will allow rapid implementation of methods and tools developed by this research.

In order to efficiently use microorganisms such as Gordonia to clean up contaminated military sites, more information is required about the genes required to degrade nitramine-containing compounds. The researchers will use genomic and metagenomic approaches to:

  1. Characterize the biochemical pathways responsible for RDX degradation,
  2. Identify the genes required for RDX-degradation,
  3. Develop molecular probes for markers of RDX degradation, and
  4. Correlate environmental variables with RDX-degradation efficiency.

Molecular indicators for genes that control nitramine degradation would be a valuable tool to assess the effectiveness and potential of a bioremediation strategy.

The RDX-degrading strain Gordonia sp. KTR9 will be studied inside the lab. This strain was isolated from an environmental sample by our collaborators at the US Army's Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) and they have completed an initial sequencing of its genome. Related bacteria will be studied at three environmentally distinct sites. The researchers will fully analyze and annotate the genome and transcriptome of KTR9 using tools developed for a closely related species of bacteria, Rhodococcus jostii RHA1. The Rhodococcus genomic tools were successfully developed in a previous Genome BC-funded research project, Microbial Envirogenomics, where they were used to better understand the degradation of PCBs, nitriles and other pollutants.

In the social science and humanities (SSH) component of this project, researchers will study public responses to the issues relevant to the project, specifically the suspicion and concern of applying biological and genomic science for purposes associated with the military, using interviews and small group discussions.


Dr. Lindsay Eltis is Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at UBC and is the founding Director of the Centre for Tuberculosis Research at UBC.

The main focus of the Eltis lab is to investigate bacterial enzymes and pathways that degrade aromatic compounds, steroids and pollutants. These enzymes and pathways have tremendous biotechnological potential in bioremediation and biocatalysts and are also important in certain diseases such as TB. Dr. Eltis has led two Genome BC projects, including Microbial Envirogenomics and currently, Genomic Studies of Explosives Biodegradation.


Project title: Genomic Studies of Explosives Biodegradation

Total Project Value: $3,453,213

Primary Project Funding: Genome British Columbia

Co-funding: $1,823,688

Involved Research Institutions:

  • The University of British Columbia,
  • Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), Department of National Defence (DND)
  • US Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), US Department of Defence (DOD)
  • Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), US Department of Defence (DOD)

Fields of Activity: Environment, bioremediation

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