Bioremediation of heavy metal pollution remains a major challenge in environmental biotechnology. One of the approaches considered for application involves biosorption either to biomass or to isolated biopolymers. Many bacterial polysaccharides have been shown to bind heavy metals with varying degrees of specificity and affinity. While various approaches have been adopted to generate polysaccharide variants altered in both structure and activity, metal biosorption has not been examined. Polymer engineering has included structural modification through the introduction of heterologous genes of the biosynthetic pathway into specific mutants, leading either to alterations in polysaccharide backbone or side chains, or to sugar modification. In addition, novel formulations can be designed which enlarge the family of available bacterial biopolymers for metal-binding and subsequent recovery. An example discussed here is the use of amphipathic bioemulsifiers such as emulsan, produced by the oil-degrading Acinetobacter lwoffii RAG-1, that forms stable, concentrated (70%), oil-in-water emulsions (emulsanosols). In this system metal ions bind primarily at the oil/ water interface, enabling their recovery and concentration from relatively dilute solutions. In addition to the genetic modifications described above, a new approach to the generation of amphipathic bioemulsifying formulations is based on the interaction of native or recombinant esterase and its derivatives with emulsan and other water-soluble biopolymers. Cation-binding emulsions are generated from a variety of hydrophobic substrates. The features of these and other systems will be discussed, together with a brief consideration of possible applications.
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