Originally Published: June 1st, 2018 in Crains New York by Kim Velsey
Ray Sambrotto, a microbiologist and associate professor at Columbia University's Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory, spent three decades studying microbial life in oceans and coastal waters, generating research that he hoped someday would be applied to help solve environmental problems.
But unlike in biomedical research, findings in environmental science are rarely applied commercially. So several years ago, Sambrotto thought, Why not try to do it myself?
Last year he co-founded Allied Microbiota with Frana James, drawing on five years of exploratory research to identify microbes capable of remediating contaminated soil.
"I decided I would like to have an impact outside academia," said Sambrotto, the son of a steel worker. He grew up in Western New York, where hazardous waste sites, such as Love Canal, are a vestige of its industrial past. "I'm proud of the publishing I've done, but I would really like to address the legacy of environmental pollutants."
Contaminated soil is a problem in virtually every town and city in the United States, with approximately 34 million acres of industrial and agricultural land polluted by lead, hydrocarbons, dioxins, the toxic chemical compounds known as PCBs and more.
Soil remediation usually involves hauling the contaminated dirt to a landfill or incinerator and replacing it with clean soil. The costs can reach more than $1,000 per ton, depending on the contaminants, the distance to the landfill and whether it's incinerated.
Working out of the Harlem Biospace biotech incubator, Allied's staff has found bacillus microbes that are capable of breaking down PCBs and other recalcitrant contaminants. "We're seeing breakdown rates of 20% or 30% per day," Sambrotto said.
Bioremediation has existed for decades but recent advances in genetic mapping—identifying 99.9% of the microbes older methods could not—accelerated its growth. Not only may it greatly lower costs, it actually destroys contaminants, rather than just moving them.
Last year the startup partnered with Clean Earth, a big soil-handling and waste-management firm, to conduct large-scale commercial tests. To date, it's successfully tested microbes in hundreds of pounds of soil. For commercial applications, it must reach hundreds of tons.
Allied's ultimate goal is to use microbes in situ to clear soil, groundwater and sediments. One day it may help clean up Sambrotto's upstate home region. Of that, he said, his late mother would have been pleased.