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Businessweek Archives

Bacteria That Make Sewage Smell Sweeter

Developments to Watch

Bacteria That Make Sewage Smell Sweeter

In-Pipe Technology Co., a Wheaton (Ill.) sewage treatment company, has developed a technique for breaking down waste as it flows from bathrooms and kitchens to water-treatment facilities. The company's new system continuously introduces a patented blend of sewage-eating bacteria through a series of pumps in the sewer lines. In-Pipe President Daniel R. Williamson Jr., a microbiologist, says the populations of bacteria that produce the noxious odors from sewage are gradually overwhelmed by his blend of "good" bacteria. By the time wastewater reaches a treatment plant, fecal matter and other suspended solids have been reduced by as much as 60%.

Not only does that help boost treatment-plant efficiency, but the beneficial bugs help prolong the useful life of the plants and sewer lines. According to a report by the Water Infrastructure Network, a coalition of municipal agencies, the cost of upgrading and replacing aging wastewater systems to meet the mandates of the Clean Water Act will reach nearly $1 trillion over the next 20 years. The "wild" bacteria in sewage produce hydrogen sulfide, a gas that is corrosive as well as the source of that rotten-egg smell. But the only by-products of In-Pipe's secret mix are water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.

So why hasn't anybody tried this approach before? Williamson says In-Pipe was the first to figure out how to grow large quantities of good microbes cheaply, and deliver them continually inside pipelines. A demonstration project is planned this year near Washington, D.C.By Janet Ginsburg; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top

Boosting That Other Bull Market?

L. Garry Adams plays proud papa to one very big baby--a 156-pound Black Angus calf named Bull 86 Squared. The little critter was born late last year at Texas A&M University, where Adams heads veterinary-medicine research. Frolicking in a pasture, this purebred hunk of beef looks no different than the other newborn calves at the university. But genetically, he is a clone of a lucky bull that was born resistant to three major bacterial killers. The clone's very existence, says Adams, could revolutionize the cattle industry, leading to safer beef and more efficient ranching.

Adams and three other Aggie researchers cloned Bull 86 Squared from 15-year-old ear cells harvested from Bull 86, an animal that was naturally resistant to brucellosis, tuberculosis, and salmonellosis. Although rare in the U.S., these three diseases--all of which can be passed on to humans via uncooked beef and unpasteurized milk--are rampant in cattle populations around the world.

According to Adams, cloning Bull 86 Squared represents an important advance in disease control. Currently no vaccines are available to prevent tuberculosis and salmonellosis, and although one exists for brucellosis, it isn't always effective. "With the addition of cloning technology, we have a chance to create superimmune animals," claims Adams. Moreover, he points out that herds genetically identical to Bull 86 Squared won't require antibiotics. That could help reduce both the growing threat of drug-resistant bugs and the presence of these chemicals in the food supply.By Ellen Licking; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top

A Better Patch for Broken Bones

Orthovita Inc., a small biotech startup in Malvern, Pa., won approval in mid-December from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to begin marketing Vitoss, a highly porous synthetic material that could play a big role in healing injuries. In clinical trials, this calcium matrix has shown an ability to speed the reknitting of broken bones in the spine, extremities, and pelvis. It may also reduce the need for expensive bone grafts--of which some 500,000 are performed annually in the U.S., according to the company.

An Orthovita scientist discovered the novel biomaterial through serendipity on a hot summer's day two years ago. After playing around with a modified form of calcium, a researcher left his work to dry in the sun and went to lunch. Upon return, he found a dried, spongelike clump riddled with microscopic holes. As it turned out, the holes were just the right size to allow nutrients and bone-building cells to pass in and out, which suggested applications in repairing broken bones. Clinical studies have since shown that just 12 weeks after inserting the calcium scaffold in a fracture, doctors can't distinguish broken bone from healthy bone.

Unlike many other synthetic or metal bone fillers, Vitoss is broken down naturally by the body. So patients do not require more surgery to remove stabilizing "hardware," as is often the case with other materials. Orthovita will officially launch its calcium sponge at the February meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.By Ellen Licking; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top

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