Probiotics vs. Pollution: How Bacteria Help Trees Clean the Environment

Probiotics vs. Pollution: How Bacteria Help Trees Clean the Environment

Environmental pollution levels are incredibly high in our modern world, with toxic runoff from industrial operations and pharmaceuticals making their way into our food and water supply, and vaporized contaminants in the air putting people at risk for a variety of health issues. Truly, they’re affecting our planet at large.

Historically, we've dealt with these kinds of issues in a few different ways.

We’ve tried simply ignoring them (not exactly effective). We’ve tried storing the toxic materials as far away from humans as we can, and, more recently, we’ve tried engaging in costly clean-up efforts using high-tech options like dredging up polluted soil or treating contaminated water with chemicals to neutralize its toxic substances.

While advanced efforts of separating pollution from our planet are moderately effective, they're often expensive and hard to deploy, especially in areas that might be underfunded or impoverished. Worse still, they can sometimes be just as destructive to the environment in the short term as the original pollution.

That's why researchers have been focusing on phytoremediation, the practice of using plants and trees to ward off and even clean up man-made pollution. One of the ways phytoremediation works is through the use of beneficial bacteria.

You see, similar to the way probiotics keep the body’s ecosystem healthy in the face of “dietary pollution” and lifestyle choices, research shows that an abundance of healthy bacteria from our trees can help keep our environment thriving.

Plant Bacteria: A Simple Solution to Complex Problem

What makes phytoremediation so appealing to researchers? It’s the path of least resistance to promoting healthy and strong ecosystems.

Plants are easy to grow pretty much anywhere, they're less expensive than many other options, and they don't require a huge amount of infrastructure to be as effective as a filtration system or dredging operation. What's more, they're good at removing some of the most common, most destructive substances from the ground and our water supply.

Trees are especially effective at converting or breaking down things like trichloroethylene (an industrial solvent that damages the liver and kidneys), lead (which attacks the brain and nervous system), and methyl tert-butyl ether (used in gas and damaging to the kidneys, liver, and nervous system).

That's right: trees not only produce oxygen for us to breathe, act as natural stress reducers, and reduce noise pollution, they're also excellent at removing toxins from groundwater.

The problem is that both plants and trees usually suffer as a result of absorbing the toxins, not growing as fast or as well as they would in healthy soil, and thus not being as efficient at removing toxins as they could be.

But certain strains of probiotic bacteria appear to be able to change all of that.

Researchers working at the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Superfund site, a well-known area of trichloroethylene pollution in California, found that poplar trees colonized with a specific strain of Enterobacter sp. not only flourished in the pollution-laden soil of the area (with a 32% increase in trunk diameter compared to non-enhanced trees!), they were actually able to break down 50% more trichloroethylene and convert it into harmless chloride ions.1

Simply put, trees with certain strains of beneficial bacteria were both stronger and more impervious to pollution than others. This was a profound discovery because the effects weren't only found in the area just around the trees: the study found that the water downstream from the probiotic-rich trees was significantly cleaner than water upstream of the test area.

The findings were clear: just as probiotic bacteria help your body detoxify itself, they can also help trees act as even better natural environmental remediators.

Other Ways Bacteria Help Keep the Planet Clean

The benefits of natural beneficial bacteria in the environmental aren't limited to trees: research indicates that they can potentially support and benefit a huge range of other environmental issues, including:

1. Removing heavy metals from water and soil.

Studies show that several strains of Enterococci and Bacillus acidiproducens can both tolerate high levels of exposure to heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, and chromium, and help remove them from contaminated sites––a great alternative to the larger water treatment plants and filtration systems heavy metal abatement programs typically require.2

The effects aren't limited to water either: research indicates that Pseudomonas, Micrococcus, and Achromobacter, among other strains, can interact with heavy metals in soil and actually make them less toxic to humans.3

2. Mitigating the effects of aquaculture-related contamination.

The aquaculture industry is rapidly growing in response to the depletion of global fish stocks––but it comes with a price tag. Aquaculture operations can do a lot of environmental damage as a result of the pollutants they release into the water, including fish waste, rotting uneaten food, pharmaceuticals used to keep fish healthy, and even the paint used to keep the sides of enclosures free of algae and other organisms.

Introducing specific strains of beneficial bacteria can be a good way to reduce these negative effects, with Bacillus amyloliquefaciens in particular having been shown to effectively reduce ammonia and nitrite levels in waters polluted by aquaculture.4

3. Breaking down waste to prevent the spread of airborne contaminants.

Farm waste is a huge issue for the environment and for the health of people who live near farming operations, since the lagoons used to contain the waste commonly leak or are open on top, allowing pieces of waste to become airborne and spread and cause health issues for miles around.

Beneficial bacteria can pull double-duty when it comes to mitigating the effects of these operations by both breaking down solid waste faster and by inhibiting the growth of unwanted strains of bacteria, potentially preventing the spread of hazardous organisms.3

There are so many potential applications for probiotics; researchers are really just starting to understand the potential benefits of leveraging our planet’s natural bacteria. Cheaper than many other methods, often more effective, and typically easier to use in a variety of settings, probiotics don't come with the same risk of damage as other environmental remediators, making them a really exciting possibility for environmental remediation.

To paraphrase Einstein, you can't solve a problem using the same thinking that created it––and focusing on bringing in a natural solution to an unnatural problem could be just the change in thinking we need to save the planet.

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1. Doty, S.L. Freeman, J. L., Cohu, C.M., Burken, J.G. . . . Blaylock, M.J. (2017). Enhanced Degradation of TCE on a Superfund Site Using Endophyte-Assisted Poplar Tree Phytoremediation. Environmental Science & Technology, 51(17), 10050–10058. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b01504

2. Huet, L., Puchooa, D. (2017). Bioremediation of heavy metals from aquatic environment through microbial processes: A potential role for probiotics? Journal of Applied Biology & Biotechnology, 5(6), 14-23. doi: 10.7324/JABB.2017.50603

3. Vainshtein, M. (2014). Probiotics for Environmental Sanitation: Goals and Examples. Current Environmental Issues and Challenges. Springer Netherlands: Dort.

4. Xie, F. Zhu, T., Zhang, F., Zhou, K., Zhao, Y., Li, Z. (2013). Using Bacillus amyloliquefaciens for remediation of aquaculture water. Springerplus, 2(119). doi: 10.1186/2193-1801-2-119


Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.