St. Paul, Minn. — Two University of Minnesota graduates have come up with a product to remove the common herbicide atrazine from drinking water.
Corn farmers across the Midwest use atrazine to kill weeds, but it contaminates groundwater, and exposure to it can cause a variety of health problems, according to some animal studies.
The new product involves taking bacteria and attaching them to a filter inserted in the water supply. The bacteria then consume the atrazine.
The young entrepreneurs are capitalizing on 15 years worth of research by their professors. They do much of their work in the Biotechnology Resource Center, in the basement of a building on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
Stainless steel tanks line the walls. They’re fermentation tanks, where bacteria and other small creatures are fed their favorite foods so they’ll reproduce a lot. This is where the idea began, according to Alex Johansson, the chief scientist at NewWater, a tiny business with big plans to clean up atrazine in drinking water.
Johansson is a chemist who just graduated from the university last year. Researchers in this lab introduced him to a bacterium — part of a group called arthrobacter — that eats atrazine.
"The organism is very effective. It can consume its weight in atrazine every two minutes," said Johansson. "So every two minutes, 50 grams of organism can eat 50 grams of atrazine, at its peak efficiency."
Atrazine is a commonly used herbicide throughout the Midwest, and it’s highly effective at killing weeds in cornfields. But it migrates into waterways, and studies have linked it to sexual abnormalities in frogs and fish. In some animal studies, it’s been linked to liver, kidney, and heart damage.