The National Institute of Environmental Health Science has awarded Utah State University a $2.2 million grant to conduct a four-year study of the biological breakdown of hazardous chemicals.

The money will go to research directed by Steve D. Aust, who also heads USU's Biotechnology Program. The grant research involves six sub-projects related to the primary goal of improving the treatment of hazardous chemical wastes.The grant stems from the recent addition of such research to the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund Program.

One part of the USU research is aimed at understanding the genetics and biochemistry of the digestive enzymes of the white rot fungus, a micro-organism with the capacity to digest wood as well as a variety of environmental pollutants.

"In some cases, breakdown of pollutants just creates different pollutants," Aust said. "But current studies indicate that no harmful intermediates are produced by the fungus. Given the proper circumstances, it degrades compounds such as PCBs and wood preservatives all the way to carbon dioxide."

Aust also intends to determine the structure-function relationships of the enzymes involved in fungus metabolism and will explore the engineering aspects of using natural systems to destroy and detoxify hazardous chemicals in soils.