Making industrial water pollutant-free

Sukritee Bhaskar, a research scholar with the IITB-Monash Research Academy, is working on a fundamental yet vexatious issue that affects all of us: How to rid industrial water of pollutants.

Her project is titled, ‘Structure characterization of enzymes (carboxylase, dehydrogenase and thiolases)’, and hopes her work will help develop a biological process that will destroy toxic compounds in water.

“One of the most pressing environmental concerns in recent times is that posed by natural and man-made aromatic compounds obtained from industrial sources discharged through industrial and urban activities and geochemical cycles,” explains Sukritee. “This mixture of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic aromatics derivatives is highly persistent and toxic as many of the compounds cannot be degraded or utilised by organisms, thus responsible for severe water pollution.”

Figure 1. Example of industrial effluents found in water

The regular processes employed to clean up industrial water are mechanical filtration, use of ozone generators, wastewater evaporation, and electrode ionization.

“Nano filtration and ultrafiltration membranes are also being used,” she reveals, “though the current membrane technology used in water treatment processes could become less efficient over time as the membranes become fouled with contaminants.”

So researchers like Sukritee have turned to nature for a solution!

Interestingly, there exists in nature a plethora of bacteria that can adapt to limiting nutrient supplies and hostile environments as seen in the polluted water. These bacterial species possess catabolic ability to biodegrade a variety of water- and soil-based aromatic pollutants into simple, non-toxic tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle intermediates by using the pollutants as their sole carbon and energy source.

“We have targeted catabolic enzymes from the bacterium in order to understand the mechanism of their action in catabolic process to develop strategies that will help remove these pollutants from the environment,” says Sukritee. “Subsequently we plan to develop high sensitivity bioassays and also engineer the protein of interest in order to design the efficient degrading process of the pollutant. This work will hopefully provide a basis that can ultimately lead to developing a biological process to destroy toxic compounds in water.”

The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen scientific relationships between the two countries. Graduate research scholars like Sukritee study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich their research experience.

Says Prof Murali Sastry, CEO of the Academy, “Aromatic compounds are one of the wide-spread pollutants in the environment and need to be eliminated. Understanding catabolic pathways and mechanisms and responsible enzymes is an effective means to do so. We are confident that the work undertaken by researchers like Sukritee will not only address problems related to pollution but hopefully help resolve the problem of water scarcity in many areas.”

Research scholar: Sukritee Bhaskar, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Structure characterization of enzymes (carboxylase, dehydrogenase and thiolases) for biotechological application in microbial degradation of water pollutants

Supervisors: Dr. Ruchi Anand, Dr. Santosh Panjikar

Contact details: bhaskarsukritee@gmail.com

This story was written by Mr Krishna Warrier based on inputs from the research student, his supervisors and IITB-Monash Research Academy. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.