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Heavy metals and other toxins frequently contaminate food and water. The culprits read like a litany of bad actors—lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, chromium—but their numbers run into the thousands. Microbes have long been enlisted for bioremediation, but they also have the potential to protect us from toxins, according to a minireview in the September Applied and Environmental Microbiology. “Beneficial bacteria are indeed capable of degrading pesticides and sequestering toxic chemicals,” says coauthor Gregor Reid of the Lawson Health Research Institute, London, Ontario.

Indeed, 40 to 60 percent of metals ingested by humans into the gastrointestinal (GI) tract do not breach the intestinal barrier, and host microbiota play an important role in preventing their entry, says coauthor Jeremy Burton, of Lawson. Lactobacilli are prominent denizens of the GI and vaginal tract, and are also frequently used in fermentation, says Burton. That raises the possibility of applying them to other foods to sweep harmful compounds from the gut, and even decontaminating environmental sites. “If the metal is trapped in or on a bacterial cell, it can pass harmlessly from the body via feces,” he explains.

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