Synthetic organophosphorus compounds are used as pesticides, plasticizers, air fuel ingredients and chemical warfare agents. Organophosphorus compounds are the most widely used insecticides, accounting for an estimated 34% of world-wide insecticide sales. Contamination of soil from pesticides as a result of their bulk handling at the farmyard or following application in the field or accidental release may lead occasionally to contamination of surface and ground water. Several reports suggest that a wide range of water and terrestrial ecosystems may be contaminated with organophosphorus compounds. These compounds possess high mammalian toxicity and it is therefore essential to remove them from the environments. In addition, about 200,000 metric tons of nerve (chemical warfare) agents have to be destroyed world-wide under Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). Bioremediation can offer an efficient and cheap option for decontamination of polluted ecosystems and destruction of nerve agents. The first micro-organism that could degrade organophosphorus compounds was isolated in 1973 and identified as Flavobacterium sp. Since then several bacterial and a few fungal species have been isolated which can degrade a wide range of organophosphorus compounds in liquid cultures and soil systems. The biochemistry of organophosphorus compound degradation by most of the bacteria seems to be identical, in which a structurally similar enzyme called organophosphate hydrolase or phosphotriesterase catalyzes the first step of the degradation. organophosphate hydrolase encoding gene opd (organophosphate degrading) gene has been isolated from geographically different regions and taxonomically different species. This gene has been sequenced, cloned in different organisms, and altered for better activity and stability. Recently, genes with similar function but different sequences have also been isolated and characterized. Engineered microorganisms have been tested for their ability to degrade different organophosphorus pollutants, including nerve agents. In this article, we review and propose pathways for degradation of some organophosphorus compounds by microorganisms. Isolation, characterization, utilization and manipulation of the major detoxifying enzymes and the molecular basis of degradation are discussed. The major achievements and technological advancements towards bioremediation of organophosphorus compounds, limitations of available technologies and future challenge are also discussed.
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