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October 24, 2002 Biochemist's microbes gobble toxic chemicals



Justin Powlowski in his lab.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj


by Jason Gondziola

What do you get when you cross biphenyls with bacteria? Well, if you’re biochemist Justin Powlowski, you could wind up with a solution for a serious environmental problem. The Concordia associate professor is involved in several projects that examine degradation of toxic chemicals by bacteria and fungi.

“There are a lot of microorganisms around in nature that can degrade things that are toxic to us,” he said. “There are compounds that are quite similar to some of the synthetic compounds that we make, similar enough so that the organisms can degrade them using enzymes, which are protein-based catalysts.”

Powlowski is no stranger to this area of research. After finishing his undergraduate work at McGill, he did his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, where a handful of researchers were investigating biochemical applications for cleaning the environment. After postdoctoral research at the University of Michigan, studying how enzymes work, he went to Europe, where he got some additional experience.

“I followed my future wife to Sweden and found somebody who was working on this microorganism that degraded phenol and was interested in having someone work for her who could characterize proteins,” he said. “It turned out to be a very interesting enzyme, because no one had ever managed to purify it.”

This work led Powlowski to his current research interests, most of which involve biodegradation of aromatic compounds such as phenols and biphenyls. Aromatics are generally toxic chemicals used in industrial applications and are prized for their longevity and stability. This is great if they’re found in a high-temperature engine, but disastrous if they’re found in the liver or fatty tissues, where certain aromatics, like PCBs, tend to accumulate.

“We’re trying to understand how some bacteria are able to degrade things that are toxic to most other living organisms,” Powlowski said. “There’s a lot of interesting fundamental biochemistry to be learned from those systems. We also need to learn what their limitations are so that we can engineer them to be more efficient at degrading chemicals that we want them to degrade.” Another project examines the same process, using yeast instead of bacteria. In both cases, the potential environmental benefits are immense.

“If you have a spill in the environment into the soil, it can spread out a lot,” he said. “That can be difficult to treat using chemical processes. We could stimulte the growth of the right kinds of microbes in the soil, and they could take care of it.”

Powlowski keeps busy. He’s working on another project that involves mercuric ions, which are toxic because they bind tightly and indiscriminately to cellular proteins. Unlike aromatics, mercury cannot be transformed into another compound.

“The only things that organisms can do with heavy metals is transform them into a different form,” he said. “We’re trying to understand how the proteins in mercuric ion detoxification work together to move the mercury from the outside of the cell to the inside.” Once the ion is inside the cell, it is detoxified and reduced to a more volatile, less harmful form of the metal.

Amid all of this work, Powlowski is preparing to move to the new sciences building at Loyola. He’s confident that the new building will help to encourage both students and sponsors, necessary components to any successful faculty. Currently, his department is involved in a joint funding application by all of the faculty’s science departments to the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

“That grant application is intimately tied to the move to the new building,” he said. “I think having the new building is going to allow us to attract more funding for equipment and to do research.”

The Science Complex, scheduled to open in September, will provide the department with some much-needed modernization. “It’s great to be moving into a building that’s designed for science in the 21st century.”