By Matthew Chin

Now, as new threats of environmental contaminants are being identified, UCLA civil and environmental engineering assistant professor Shaily Mahendra is investigating their environmental implications, and designing methods to transform them with tiny but powerful microorganisms.

Conventional clean-up technologies are expensive, consume resources and energy, and mostly move the hazard from one place to another. Mahendra advances a green, low-cost, permanent solution called in-situ bioremediation. That is, using microbes to clean up polluted environments on site, without transporting the contaminants away.

“We need to study new classes of emerging contaminants and proactively find solutions to mitigate their ecological and health risks,” Mahendra said.

Mahendra considers 1,4-dioxane, perfluorinated compounds, and engineered nanomaterials as three of the top emerging contaminants. She has projects underway in her laboratory to biologically detoxify them. Combining her training in engineering and microbiology, she designs novel biomarkers and isotopic markers to prove that bacteria can successfully break down 1,4-dioxane, which causes cancer, and is frequently detected in groundwater and drinking water. Mahendra is also investigating bacteria and fungi that could biodegrade potentially toxic perfluoroalkyl compounds. These compounds, widely used in fire fighting foam and stain repellents, have been found in critical ecosystems. And she is studying how metallic nanoparticles affect microbial communities. This research will help us understand environmental implications of nanotechnology, and lead to design of safer nanomaterials.

“To accurately assess the impacts of ever-increasing inputs of chemicals and nanomaterials into the environment, we must explore their interactions with microbes,” she said. “Microbes serve as sensitive indicators of the toxic effects on higher organisms, but they can also be our allies in mitigating environmental degradation.”

Mahendra’s research efforts have earned her several notable recognitions over the past few months, including being named a 2011 Pop Tech Science and Public Leadership Fellow; a 2011 University of California Hellman Fellow; and being awarded the Excellence in Review Award by Environmental Science & Technology.

In the larger picture, Mahendra’s research, teaching and service efforts fall right into the department’s mission — engineering sustainable infrastructure for the future. She teaches undergraduate courses in environmental microbiology and environmental nanotechnology. She has introduced a graduate environmental biotechnology class, covering how molecular biology and process engineering helps address contemporary environmental issues, such as managing global nutrient cycles, hazardous waste remediation and production of biofuels.

Mahendra recently received $1.5 million in grants from the U.S. Air Force and the National Science Foundation to continue her study of microbes in the environment.

“In addition to challenging coursework and exciting projects, I provide an open atmosphere in the classroom where students are able to ask questions, share original ideas and critically evaluate their work and the work of others,” she said.

To find out more about Professor Mahendra’s research, go to: http://www.cee.ucla.edu/faculty/mahendra/profile.