Biodegradation is nature's way of recycling wastes, or breaking down organic matter into nutrients that can be used by other organisms. "Degradation" means decay, and the "bio-" prefix means that the decay is carried out by a huge assortment of bacteria, fungi, insects, worms, and other organisms that eat dead material and recycle it into new forms.
In nature, there is no waste because everything gets recycled. The waste products from one organism become the food for others, providing nutrients and energy while breaking down the waste organic matter. Some organic materials will break down much faster than others, but all will eventually decay.
By harnessing these natural forces of biodegradation, people can reduce wastes and clean up some types of environmental contaminants. Through composting, we accelerate natural biodegradation and convert organic wastes to a valuable resource. Wastewater treatment also accelerates natural forces of biodegradation. In this case the purpose is to break down organic matter so that it will not cause pollution problems when the water is released into the environment. Through bioremediation, microorganisms are used to clean up oil spills and other types of organic pollution. Composting and bioremediation provide many possibililites for student research.
Scientific Inquiry Series
Decay and Renewal, the third book in the Cornell Environmental Inquiry Series, is a comprehensive guide to student biodegradation research. Learn more about Decay and Renewal and download related files..
- Cornell's Composting in Schools website - the science of composting and ideas for student research projects
- Soil Biological Communities
- Backyard Fungi
- Fun Facts About Fungi
- Fun with Bacteriology
- Introduction To Bacteria (PDF file)
- Biodegradable Plastics
- Teaching Plastics
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