Soil Microorganisms in Biodegradation of Pesticides and Herbicides

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Soil Microorganisms in Biodegradation of Pesticides and Herbicides

Pesticides are the chemical substances that kill pests and herbicides are the chemicals that kill weeds. In the context of soil, pests are fungi, bacteria insects, worms, and nematodes etc. that cause damage to field crops. Thus, in broad sense pesticides are insecticides, fungicides, bactericides, herbicides and nematicides that are used to control or inhibit plant diseases and insect pests. Although wide-scale application of pesticides and herbicides is an essential part of augmenting crop yields; excessive use of these chemicals leads to the microbial imbalance, environmental pollution and health hazards. An ideal pesticide should have the ability to destroy target pest quickly and should be able to degrade non-toxic substances as quickly as possible.

The ultimate “sink” of the pesticides applied in agriculture and public health care is soil. Soil being the storehouse of multitudes of microbes, in quantity and quality, receives the chemicals in various forms and acts as a scavenger of harmful substances. The efficiency and the competence to handle the chemicals vary with the soil and its physical, chemical and biological characteristics.

1. Effects of pesticides: Pesticides reaching the soil in significant quantities have direct effect on soil microbiological aspects, which in turn influence plant growth. Some of the most important effects caused by pesticides are : (1) alterations hi ecological balance of the soil microflora, (2) continued application of large quantities of pesticides may cause ever lasting changes in the soil microflora, (3) adverse effect on soil fertility and crop productivity, (4) inhibition of N2 fixing soil microorganisms such as Rhizobium, Azotobacter, Azospirillum etc. and cellulolytic and phosphate solubilizing microorganisms, (5) suppression of nitrifying bacteria, Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter by soil fumigants ethylene bromide, Telone, and vapam have also been reported, (6) alterations in nitrogen balance of the soil, (7) interference with ammonification in soil, (8) adverse effect on mycorrhizal symbioses in plants and nodulation in legumes, and (9) alterations in the rhizosphere microflora, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

2. Persistence of pesticides in soil: How long an insecticide, fungicide, or herbicide persists in soil is of great importance in relation to pest management and environmental pollution. Persistence of pesticides in soil for longer period is undesirable because of the reasons: a) accumulation of the chemicals in soil to highly toxic levels, b) may be assimilated by the plants and get accumulated in edible plant products, c) accumulation in the edible portions of the root crops, d) to be get eroded with soil particles and may enter into the water streams, and finally leading to the soil, water and air pollutions. The effective persistence of pesticides in soil varies from a week to several years depending upon structure and properties of the constituents in the pesticide and availability of moisture in soil. For instance, the highly toxic phosphates do not persist for more than three months while chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides (eg. DOT, aldrin, chlordane etc) are known to persist at least for 4-5 years and some times more than 15 years.

From the agricultural point of view, longer persistence of pesticides leading to accumulation of residues in soil may result into the increased absorption of such toxic chemicals by plants to the level at which the consumption of plant products may prove deleterious / hazardous to human beings as well as livestock’s. There is a chronic problem of agricultural chemicals, having entered in food chain at highly inadmissible levels in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other developing countries in the world. For example, intensive use of DDT to control insect pests and mercurial fungicides to control diseases in agriculture had been known to persist for longer period and thereby got accumulated in the food chain leading to food contamination and health hazards. Therefore, DDT and mercurial fungicides has been, banned to use in agriculture as well as in public health department.

3. Biodegradation of Pesticides in Soil: Pesticides reaching to the soil are acted upon by several physical, chemical, and biological forces. However, physical and chemical forces are acting upon/degrading the pesticides to some extent, microorganism’s plays major role in the degradation of pesticides. Many soil microorganisms have the ability to act upon pesticides and convert them into simpler non-toxic compounds. This process of degradation of pesticides and conversion into non-toxic compounds by microorganisms is known as “biodegradation”. Not all pesticides reaching to the soil are biodegradable and such chemicals that show complete resistance to biodegradation are called “recalcitrant”.

The chemical reactions leading to biodegradation of pesticides fall into several broad categories which are discussed in brief in the following paragraphs.

a) Detoxification: Conversion of the pesticide molecule to a non-toxic compound. Detoxification is not synonymous with degradation. Since a single chance in the side chain of a complex molecule may render the chemical non-toxic.
b) Degradation: The breaking down / transformation of a complex substrate into simpler products leading finally to mineralization. Degradation is often considered to be synonymous with mineralization, e.g. Thirum (fungicide) is degraded by a strain of Pseudomonas and the degradation products are dimethlamine, proteins, sulpholipaids, etc.
C. Conjugation (complex formation or addition reaction): In which an organism make the substrate more complex or combines the pesticide with cell metabolites. Conjugation or the formation of addition product is accomplished by those organisms catalyzing the reaction of addition of an amino acid, organic acid or methyl crown to the substrate, for e.g., in the microbial metabolism of sodium dimethly dithiocarbamate, the organism combines the fungicide with an amino acid molecule normally present in the cell and thereby inactivate the pesticides/chemical.
d) Activation: It is the conversion of non-toxic substrate into a toxic molecule, for eg. Herbicide, 4-butyric acid (2, 4-D B) and the insecticide Phorate are transformed and activated microbiologically in soil to give metabolites that are toxic to weeds and insects.
e) Changing the spectrum of toxicity: Some fungicides/pesticides are designed to control one particular group of organisms / pests, but they are metabolized to yield products inhibitory to entirely dissimilar groups of organisms, for e.g. the fungicide PCNB fungicide is converted in soil to chlorinated benzoic acids that kill plants.

Biodegradation of pesticides / herbicides is greatly influenced by the soil factors like moisture, temperature, PH and organic matter content, in addition to microbial population and pesticide solubility. Optimum temperature, moisture and organic matter in soil provide congenial environment for the break down or retention of any pesticide added in the soil. Most of the organic pesticides degrade within a short period (3-6 months) under tropical conditions. Metabolic activities of bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes have the significant role in the degradation of pesticides.

4. Criteria for Bioremediation / Biodegradation: For successful biodegradation of pesticide in soil, following aspects must be taken into consideration. i) Organisms must have necessary catabolic activity required for degradation of contaminant at fast rate to bring down the concentration of contaminant, ii) the target contaminant must be bioavailability, iii) soil conditions must be congenial for microbial /plant growth and enzymatic activity and iv) cost of bioremediation must be less than other technologies of removal of contaminants.

According to Gales (1952) principal of microbial infallibility, for every naturally occurring organic compound there is a microbe / enzyme system capable its degradation.

5. Strategies for Bioremediation: For the successful biodegradation / bioremediation of a given contaminant following strategies are needed.

a) Passive/ intrinsic Bioremediation: It is the natural bioremediation of contaminant by tile indigenous microorganisms and the rate of degradation is very slow.
b) Biostimulation: Practice of addition of nitrogen and phosphorus to stimulate indigenous microorganisms in soil.
c) Bioventing: Process/way of Biostimulation by which gases stimulants like oxygen and methane are added or forced into soil to stimulate microbial activity.
d) Bioaugmentation: It is the inoculation/introduction of microorganisms in the contaminated site/soil to facilitate biodegradation.
e) Composting: Piles of contaminated soils are constructed and treated with aerobic thermophilic microorganisms to degrade contaminants. Periodic physical mixing and moistening of piles are done to promote microbial activity.
f) Phytoremediation: Can be achieved directly by planting plants which hyperaccumulate heavy metals or indirectly by plants stimulating microorganisms in the rhizosphere.
g) Bioremediation:Process of detoxification of toxic/unwanted chemicals / contaminants in the soil and other environment by using microorganisms.
h) Mineralization: Complete conversion of an organic contaminant to its inorganic constituent by a species or group of microorganisms.

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