ST. LOUIS — Washington University announced on Wednesday a grant to fund a genetically engineered “kill switch” to prevent pollution-eating microbes from running rampant in the environment.

The grant, $744,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of five to universities across the country for research into the environmental impact of bioremediation, or the use of microorganisms to “eat” pollutants such as plastic, oil or other toxins in water or soil.

“These microbes act like Pac-Man, cruising through toxic spills or hazardous waste storage tanks and chomping through the chemicals they are designed to destroy,” said Ed Chu, EPA region 7 acting administrator. “And the research you do here is a switch that causes the microbe to self-destruct, like a tape for Ethan Hawk in ‘Mission Impossible.’”

Chu presented the grant to Washington U. professors Tae Seok Moon and Kim Parker. Moon’s team developed the kill switch and Parker’s specializes in the effect of pollutants on water and soil systems. They will together test the switch’s effect on the environment.
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