Biological Applications For Environmental Control

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Applied biology plays an altogether vital role for all humans, in terms of sustaining both human life and environment quality. On the production side of these benefits, we are all highly dependent on the renewable genesis of consumable products, from farms around the world that generate cultivated crops and managed livestock, from managed forests that furnish new supplies of timber and pulp, and from extensive commercial and industrial operations that supply a wide range of biochemical products ranging from basic foods and beverages (e.g., bread, cheese, wine, beer) to bulk chemicals (e.g., acetic acid, etha-nol) to advanced pharmaceuticals.

Given that waste generation inevitably follows our consumption of commodities, we also depend heavily on controlled biology for yet another layer of applied benefits, as the biochemical basis for sustained environmental management. Indeed, we routinely rely on applied biology to cover both source and sink roles in closing out the grand mass balance of waste residuals within all environmental realms, from wastewater treatment to biosolids processing to solid waste degradation to soil, groundwater, and air contaminant remediation.

These biochemical benefits, therefore, are global in coverage while being evolutionary in impact. Dating back roughly 10,000 years, applied biology had an absolutely seminal impact on the advent of civilized human life, enabling our nomadic hunter-gatherer predecessors to adopt an entirely new life-style tied to their newfound abilities with beneficially controlling and manipulating biology.

Rather surprisingly, though, the methods and motives of applied biology are not unique to humans. In fact, based on what we know about the approximate origin of ant life forms in the mid-Cretaceous Era 80+ million years ago and their sophisticated colonial lifestyles, it is quite likely that we trailed ants in this regard by a considerable margin. For example, there are ant colonies that "farm" fungal growths for food, and there are even

Environmental Biology for Engineers and Scientists, by David A. Vaccari, Peter F. Strom, and James E. Alleman Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

ants that "herd" so-called "ant-cattle" stocks of aphid and larvae life-forms. One such exemplary leaf-cutting ant group may be found in Central and South American regions (e.g., typically associated with the Atta genus), where individual chambers within their colonies are allocated to carefully managed farming operations. These particular ants nurture, and then feed exclusively from, a form of fungus found only within these unique subterranean systems. Leaf and grass cuttings gathered by ants on the surface are carried underground to nurture the fungus growths held in chambers inside the colony, even to the point of using protease-rich anal secretions to "fertilize" the cuttings. Multiple fungal growths are raised on staggered 3- to 4-week cycles, with the ants living off the cloned, reproductive fruiting buds that grow on the fungus surface.

Whether their mode of sustenance were that of farming, herding, or just grazing, however, ant cultures have also adopted remarkably advanced measures for applied waste management. Ants routinely remove residues generated by farming or herding, along with dead members of the colony and other debris, to remote dumping sites located either deep within the underground colony or on external surface spoil sites carefully chosen to provide a downhill, easy-discharge location. Furthermore, most ants exhibit a fastidious disdain for contact with their wastes and garbage, and in some colonies there are even special ant groupings solely assigned the task of policing waste.

At least when measured within a historical timeframe, ants appear to have far surpassed humans in terms of waste management concerns, extending back millions of years instead of a few centuries. In our own case, large-scale organized efforts to collect and remove wastes were not implemented until after the Industrial Revolution, roughly three centuries ago, and controlled use of biological waste treatment as an environmental management tool extends back barely half that time.

Of course, although humans may have been beaten by ants on a time scale, we have now advanced the sophistication of our applied biology efforts to a far higher level, and this book's environmental management theme certainly demonstrates this progress. Whereas ants have long been content with just collecting and discarding wastes, humankind's modern approach to environmental engineering and science has developed and adopted far more advanced measures.

Developing an appreciation for, and understanding of, the biological processes now used for treatment of contaminated air, water, soil or solid wastes involves the basic principles of biology that we discussed earlier. Basic biology, especially biochemistry, governs all the processes involved. Microbiology is critical, since microorganisms dominate these processes, but there are also processes that depend on higher plants and even trees to degrade various wastes and/or to remediate the land on which they live. Finally, an understanding of ecology is necessary, since all of these processes involve mixtures of numerous interacting populations of organisms, and in some cases the consortia of organisms are able to achieve treatment goals that could not have been achieved by individual populations (Atlas and Bartha, 1987).

In whatever fashion the various mechanisms of applied biology might be used, though, the resulting benefits of preserving and protecting our natural assets are readily obvious. Biological systems inherently qualify as environmentally friendly, and as a naturally renewable resource they tend to offer significant economic advantages. At the same time, backed by eons of evolutionary adaptation, biological mechanisms commonly provide a highly effective, and metabolically diverse, strategy for effectively transforming waste residuals into innocuous by-products. Should it be necessary, most of these systems can even self-adjust (i.e., acclimate) to their circumstances (environmental conditions,

BIOLOGICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL 579 TABLE 16.1 Biological Applications for Environmental Control

Applied Realm of Specific Process Biological Level_

Environmental Management Application Micro-scale" Macro-scale6

Applied Realm of Specific Process Biological Level_

Environmental Management Application Micro-scale" Macro-scale6


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