A tiny creature living in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park may be the key to making industrial bleaching of clothing and paper products easier on the environment.
Researchers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory say that an enzyme from a Yellowstone microbe is able to break down hydrogen peroxide — a key ingredient in industrial bleaching — so that the byproducts are just water and oxygen, not wastewater laden with chemicals.
The information was presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiologists in Washington, D.C.
Vicki Thompson, a chemical engineer at INEEL and a primary scientist on the project, said the enzyme could eventually be produced on a large scale for major industrial bleaching operations.
"We're starting to talk to some of the industries and we've gotten some interest," Thompson said Tuesday.
The discovery is one of the latest developments in "bioprospecting" at Yellowstone, which is the search for useful compounds in the microbes, plants and fungi that thrive in the extremely hot environments of the park's geothermal features.
Researchers figure that about 99 percent of Yellowstone's heat-loving microbes remain unknown to scientists.
Thompson said the microbe involved in the INEEL experiments was found about two years ago living in the fungal mats of an unnamed hot spring — dubbed LNN2 — in the Lower Geyser Basin.
A sample was brought back to the INEEL labs, where bacteria from it were grown and enzymes were extracted.
In the natural world, the enzyme from the microbe is used to break down hydrogen peroxide that's naturally produced in the activity of cells. In turn, that protects cells from the extra stress of oxidation — the biological equivalent of rust, INEEL officials say.
But INEEL researchers also found that the enzyme from the microbe, named Thermus brockianus, also did well in breaking down hydrogen peroxide from industrial bleaching.
Recently, textile makers and the pulp and paper industries have been moving away from toxic, carcinogenic chemical bleaching in favor of hydrogen peroxide-based bleaching, which tends to be better for the environment, according to INEEL.
But dealing with the wastewater is still tricky.
Industry officials were able to chemically treat the water but that tended to cancel out any environmental benefits. Diluting the wastewater with more water only created a larger volume of water at the end of the process.
There were commercially available enzymes that could break down the hydrogen peroxide, but they required cooler wastewater than the bleaching operations produced.
That's where the Yellowstone enzymes — and their particular ability to thrive in hot conditions — come in.
Thompson said she was surprised how well the Yellowstone enzyme worked when it was placed in conditions simulating an industrial operation, which can involve temperatures around 194 degrees Fahrenheit. And while commercially available products are effective for just hours, the Yellowstone enzyme was productive for days, Thompson said.
"It did a lot better than we thought it would," she said. "Water and oxygen are the byproducts, so it's very benign."
INEEL officials say the discovery could save energy for textile and paper companies and could reduce the environmental effects of their operations.
The next step is to try to develop the enzyme on a commercial scale. That will mean identifying the gene that encodes it and inserting it into a microbe that can be easily grown in large quantities, according to INEEL.
Thompson presented the findings at the conference Tuesday to colleagues who also research the minuscule world of microbiology.
"It went over well," she said. "Everyone that I talked to about it thought it was a really interesting idea."
A paper on the Yellowstone enzyme is scheduled to be printed this summer in the scientific journal Biotechnology Progress.