Fungi that lunch on uranium

This week we’ve had the excellent news that the British government has decided to overrule a faction within the military which insists that the use of cluster munitions is justified. This despite the fact that the bomblets have a tendency to take the limbs and lives of inquisitive children.

Another dodgy military technology in the news this month is depleted uranium, which is added to shells and armour-piercing bullets to give them added oomph. The problem is that residual amounts of the U-235 isotope present in depleted uranium can persist in the environment for decades, damaging internal organs and triggering cancers. Decontaminating battlefields involves collecting and disposing of munitions fragments by hand, but this crude litter collection cannot deal with the uranium dust that coats the sites in question.

There is a solution, however. Researchers led by Geoffrey Gadd at the University of Dundee have found that several common types of fungi can grow on depleted uranium and digest it. When the fungi are put into contact with the metal, it becomes coated with a yellow substance that includes several forms of uranyl phosphate. These compounds can lock-in the uranium, preventing its uptake by plants and animals.

Obviously the best solution would be to cease using munitions that contain depleted uranium. But in the short term at least the fungal fix is good news. Apart from military enthusiasts for depleted uranium munitions, I imagine that the only objectors are those who claim that environmental amelioration technologies give license to polluters.