Researchers discover algae that can survive radioactive water

Researchers have discovered algae that can not only adapt to and survive in water contaminated with nuclear waste but could also potentially help ‘purify’ it .

The discovery could have wider environmental implications for cleaning up radioactive waters. That’s according to a new study from researchers at The University of Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

The Manchester researchers have been working closely with site operators at the Sellafield nuclear “megasite”, studying a deep, Olympic swimming pool-sized engineered pond used to store radioactive, nuclear fuel materials.

Using cutting-edge molecular forensics DNA sequencing tools, the team identified a species of algae that has adapted to the challenging life within radioactive waters.

Microorganisms have long adapted to thrive in the most inhospitable environments on Earth. They have been known to survive in extreme conditions allowing them to live in harsh environments such as hot springs and deep ocean trenches. However, this is the first time algae have been studied in an intensively radioactive nuclear fuel storage pond.

Colonisation of such inhospitable ponds is surprising, leaving researchers highly interested in how the microbes surivied in such inhospitable conditions.


Professor Jonathan Lloyd, Professor of Geomicrobiology
The research comes with considerable environmental importance, as these  microbes may accumulate the dissolved radionuclides present in the pond and other similar environments . 
Professor Jonathan Lloyd, Professor of Geomicrobiology

Professor Jonathan Lloyd, Professor of Geomicrobiology, said: “The research comes with considerable environmental importance, as these microbes may accumulate the dissolved radionuclides present in the pond and other similar environments . With more work we may be able to understand how they could even help to “purify” contaminated waters.

“However, large colonies of microbial cells can also hamper the management of ponds by causing very poor visibility. Identifying the microorganisms present and understanding the survival strategies that they have evolved are key factors in controlling their growth when necessary.”

The Sellafield outdoor pond was colonised by a seasonal “bloom” of microorganisms dominated by the alga Haematococcus, which can accumulate high levels of radioactive isotopes in the water. This organism is not normally associated with deep water and you would be more likely to find it growing in a shallow bird bath.

Studies in Manchester showed that this unusual organism adapts to highly radioactive environments by producing the pigment astaxanthin, which protects the cells from radiation damage. In bird baths, Haematococcus uses this pigment to protect the cells from UV damage.

The team has now expanded its search for life to other ponds and facilities within Sellafield

Professor Lloyd added: “Alongside identifying the mechanisms that allow microbes to tolerate one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable, this work also supports the design of methods to control the growth of these hardy microorganisms, whose proliferation can complicate the management and ultimate decommissioning of these facilities.”


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Reference: MeGraw VE, Brown AR, Boothman C, Goodacre R, Morris K, Sigee D, Anderson L, Lloyd JR. 2018. A novel adaptation mechanism underpinning algal colonization of a nuclear fuel storage pond. mBio 9:e02395-17. https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.02395-17.


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