Are GMO Bacteria Safe for Wastewater Treatment?

Written by AOS Treatment Solutions on August 9, 2017

Earth’s water supply is finite.

The water we drink today is the same water that flowed in the Delaware River on that cold Christmas night when George Washington made his historic crossing.

With the ever-increasing demand for clean water, the reclamation of wastewater needs a faster timetable than Nature’s water cycle, or hydrologic cycle, provides.

Bacteria in Wastewater Treatment

Wastewater treatment cleans up “used” water from communities and industries. It reduces pathogenic bacteria and dangerous chemicals and pollutants, with the result a clean water source for human, agricultural and industrial use.

Biological treatment of wastewater uses bacteria and other microorganisms to break down organic contaminants. Like everything in life, the use of bacteria for the cleanup of contaminants has pros and cons. Most bacterial wastewater treatment facilities use a two-stage process utilizing aerobic and anaerobic bacteria.


  • Use of aerobic (oxygen-using) bacteria is a rapid, efficient way to remove about 98 percent of organic contaminants.
  • Natural oxidation procedure breaks down organic pollutants in efficient process that yields cleaner water effluent.
  • Process can handle larger in-flow volumes of wastewater.
  • Anaerobic bacteria (non-oxygen users) produces less biomass.
  • Anaerobic process requires less water treatment energy consumption and produces methane, a recyclable bio-gas.
  • Anaerobic process results in fewer bio-solids.


  • Aerating the aerobic bacteria takes a large amount of electrical energy.
  • Generates large amount of bio-solids, or sludge, which requires disposal.
  • Natural bacteria do not remove many man-made contaminants from wastewater.
  • Anaerobic bacterial wastewater treatment is slow process and less efficient than aerobic.

GMO Bacteria Treads Where Others Can’t

The benefits of using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in wastewater treatment are clear. There are, in some cases of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, detergents, cosmetics, industrial compounds and other toxic substances, no other highly efficient methods of removal from the environment. Bacteria are easy to maintain at a constant level and to prompt into rapid proliferation should a need arise, such as a massive waste spillage.

The most common contaminant of groundwater in the U.S. is gasoline. There are thousands of steel tanks leaking gas into the soil beneath old gas stations as the drums corrode. Rather than go through the expensive and labor-intensive process of manual cleanup, microorganisms introduced into the soil are “fed” by pumping nitrogen and phosphorus into the ground to spark rapid growth.

This “bioremediation” is a method of cleaning up the environment in ways that are far less stressful to the ecosystems while dramatically cutting the cost of the cleanup. Designer microbes could eventually be able to do the cleanup jobs faster and more efficiently than Mother Nature’s version of the bacteria.

The U.S. Department of Energy is even investigating the possibility of using microbes, or hybrids of known microbes, to clean up radiation from sites left over from the production of nuclear weapons.

A Public Image of GMO Bacteria in Wastewater Treatment

The modern world finds contaminants showing up in the water supply that Mother Nature’s hydrologic cycle isn’t equipped to handle. Apply a bit of science, and we find GMOs cleaning up pollutants such as oil and toxic waste.

Inevitably, questions arise around the subject of releasing anything genetically modified into the environment. The use of GMOs for wastewater conversion has faced some public criticism.

Are these GMO bacteria safe for the treatment of wastewater? Is there a negative impact on the environment? Could these “superbugs” find their way outside of human control? What would happen if they did?

There are risks, of course. But the alternative is a lack of clean water on a global scale with a population suffering because of it. Wastewater treatment is not a pleasant subject for most, but it is a discussion worth having. Contact AOS today for more information on your municipal or industrial water treatment needs.

Posted Under: Wastewater Treatment Solutions