A bio-remediation solution for pharmaceutical pollution

Bioremediation is a technology that ‘treats’ environmental pollution  using microbes, plants or their by-products. It helps in removing xenobiotic and recalcitrant pollutants through physical or chemical methods. Pharmaceutical industry releases large quantities of recalcitrant pharmaceutical by-products. Additionally, farming and municipal wastes contribute to the pollution. Although pharmaceutical products are biologically active, they are non-biodegradable and recalcitrant in nature, which makes pharmaceutical pollution difficult to be rid of using conventional methods (1).

Furthermore, compounds such as antibiotics and hormones in the environment affect bio diversity and functioning of natural microbiota of the soil. Furthermore, pharmaceutical pollution causes disturbance in ecological function and soil fertility (2,3). Moreover, pharmaceutical pollutants can also travel up the food chain and affect aquatic and terrestrial organisms, including humans (4). Nevertheless, researchers have explored the possibility of using biological systems in mitigating pharmaceutical pollution, especially since physio-chemical methods have failed to efficiently remove pharmaceutical waste products  (5,6).

Major pharmaceutical pollutants

Pharmaceutical pollution includes raw materials, end products and by-products involved in manufacturing of wide range of products (7). As a case in point, the table below shows type and class of various pollutants released by pharmaceutical industries.

Types of  Pharmaceutical Pollutants
Antibiotics Hormones and steroids
Analgesics Contraceptives
Antiepileptic Antihypertensive
Antiseptics Metal Contaminants
Beta Blockers

Table: List of effluents from Pharmaceutical industries (7).

Impact of pharmaceutical pollution

Excess antibiotics enter the environment either through human waste or during the manufacturing processes. Antibiotics enter soil, municipal waters, ground waters, ultimately reaching the plants and herbivores (8). More importantly, antibiotics destroy the natural ecosystem of soil and aquatic environment and select resistant strains. Another pharmaceutical product, analgesics (painkillers and pain relievers) also affect the natural ecosystem (9). For example, Diclofenac and Ibuprofen, have been reported to have negative impacts on crops and plants, namely affecting their growth and development (10).

Pharmaceutical agents Harmful effects
Fluoxetine Alters estradiol levels in fish and sexual dysfunction in humans.
Diclofenac, Ibuprofen etc. Renal impairment of fish, birds and humans; also death of vultures.
Ethinyl estradiol Effect the fertility and development of fish, reptiles and other aquatic invertebrates.
Cytotoxins Produces reproductive toxins in aquatic animals and tumors in plants.
Enrofloxacin and other antibiotics Evolution of antibiotic drug resistant pathogenic microbes leading to ineffectiveness.
Chlorpyrifos Atrazine Susceptibility to Viral infections in humans and other animals decreases.

Table: Pharmaceutical agents and their harmful effects (Source: Randhawa & Kullar, 2011).

Besides antibiotics and analgesics, hormones are the largest producers of wastes from pharmaceutical industries. Additionally, compounds such as Cyproterone Acetate, Letrozole, Steroids, Contraceptives and others are reported to have been found in waste waters released by the pharmaceutical industries (6). These hormones are accumulated by plants which cause mutations and are also carcinogenic, hampering their growth phenotypically and genetically (11). Another worrying contaminants is metal, such as iron, chromium, lead, zinc, nickel, cadmium,  found in pharmaceutical wastes in alarming levels of 0.05-11 mg/l (12). These metals when accumulated by plants affect water transport, nutrient uptake from the soil and the rhizosphere (13,14).

Role of microbes in bio-remediation of pharmaceutical pollution 

Biological systems are efficient in converting recalcitrant and xenobiotic pharmaceutical drugs to less toxic forms or even leading to complete mineralisation. In fact, it has been reported that certain strains of microorganisms have the potential to use pharmaceutical wastes as their carbon source (15). Thus, bio-degradation of waste is vital and depends on a number of factors, such as structure of the compound, toxicity, concentration levels, environmental conditions during degradation, efficiency of the microbes to be used and presence of other compounds and their concentrations (16). In case of pharmaceutical products, naturally occurring microbes have the capability of metabolizing the compounds but lack access to them as well as nutrients. This coupled with low abundance of such strains significantly affect their remediation capabilities (17).

It has to be emphasized that pharmaceutical pollutants can be biodegraded using conventional biological technologies such as Aerobic and Anaerobic treatment, fungal treatment, bacterial treatment, phytoremediation and membrane bioreactors (18). These treatments lead to significant reduction in Chemical oxygen demand (COD), Total Suspended Solids and also Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). Additionally, cow dung has been used in the bio degradation of pharmaceutical compounds (4)

Mode of action

Literature review showed that a wide range of organisms have been found to actively metabolize pharmaceutical products of which microbes are prominent. Thus, the table below lists species that can be used for bio remediation of pharmaceutical waste.

Type of Microorganism Examples Target Pollutants
Bacteria Mixed Bacterial Cultures,

Pseudomonas sp.,

Enterobactor sp.,

Streptomonas sp.,

Aeromonas sp.,

Acinetobactor sp.,

Arthrobacter sp.,

Rhodococcus sp.,

Clostridium sp. etc

Phenols, Cresols, catechol, sulphates, resorcinols, suspended solids, Pentachlorophenols, Organic compounds, Diclofenac, Ibuprofen etc
Fungi Bjerkandera adusta,

Aspergillus sp.,

Penicillium sp. etc

Phenols, organic and inorganic compounds etc
Plants Aquatic plants,

tomato hairy root cultures,

Phragmitis karka,

Typha latipholia

Toxic and Heavy metals, Phosphorous, Phenols etc.

Table: Organisms capable of bioremediation of pharmaceutical pollutants (18).

Studies on microbial species in bio remediation have focused on their effect on reducing COD and Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) removal, rather than the mode of action or the enzymes involved. Further studies have also shown higher efficiency of anaerobic reactors in treating pharmaceutical waste water (19). For example, Rodriguez-Martinez et al. (2005) showed 90% COD in Penicillin G containing pharmaceutical wastewater was removed using Up-flow Anaerobic sludge reactor (20). In another study, anaerobic baffled reactors were used to treat ampicillin and Aureomycin waste water, leading to 16-30% partial degradation. Additionally,  for the case of analgesics, bio degradation of Diclofenac in a bioreactor is shown in a flow chart, explaining the mode of microbial action for bio remediation (21). There were also similar studies that looked at bioreactors. However, there is a lack of focus on identification of species responsible for bio remediation of specific pharmaceutical compound.

Flowchart of the common microbial action which can be used for the pharmaceutical pollution

              Figure: Flowchart of common mode of microbial action (21, 22).

Need for optimal re-mediating mixtures

Various pharmaceutical residues have been detected in the environment, whereby these pollutants affect aquatic organisms, terrestrial organisms, humans, plants and also the microbiota of the soil. Thus, elimination and degradation of these elements are very important as they are toxic and mutagen and whereby, these can be achieved using microbes, plants and their metabolites. Further studies have been conducted on efficiency of bioreactors in achieving COD and BOD removal, along with degradation of pharmaceutical products. However, it is proven that anaerobic reactors efficiently re-mediate these recalcitrant compounds. This point towards a dire need for isolating species responsible for degrading specific compounds in addition to designing optimal consortium capable of re-mediating mixture of pharmaceutical pollution.



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Avishek Majumder

Avishek Majumder

Research Analyst at Project Guru
Avishek is a Master in Biotechnology and has previously worked with Lifecell International Private Limited. Apart from data analysis and biological research, he loves photography and reading. He loves to play football and basketball in his spare time with an avid interest in adventure and nature. He was also a member of the Scouts in his school and has attended Military training.
Avishek Majumder

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