Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Microorganisms are cleaning up Boston Harbor, UMass study finds

14.11.2002


Research detailed in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology



Microorganisms are cleaning up contaminants in the mud beneath Boston Harbor, and if humans prevent future fuel spills and leaks, the harbor could potentially cleanse itself within the next 10 to 20 years, according to research conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The findings are detailed in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The work was funded by the Office of Naval Research.

Scientists had previously determined that these contaminants, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, could biodegrade if suspended in water. But it was also believed that once PAHs sank into the silt at the bottom of the harbor, they could not be oxidized or degraded – a theory that the new study challenges.


"This is important because it demonstrates that the self-purification capacity of the harbor is much greater than previously recognized," said UMass microbiologist Derek Lovley, a co-author on the paper. "Furthermore, if future spills of contaminants can be eliminated, the harbor may get cleaned up in large part due to natural activity without the requirement for expensive remediation strategies. It does give us hope for the longer term, if practices change."

Marine harbors are frequently polluted with contaminants from fuel spills, industrial waste, shipping activities, runoff, soot, and creosote-treated pilings, Lovley said. Although some chemical portions of these contaminants readily degrade, PAHs tend to accumulate in the sediment. "They’re not very soluble in water, and they don’t react chemically with many other compounds," said Lovley, "so they collect in the mud at the bottom of the harbor." Previous research has shown that PAHs accumulate in fish and other aquatic animals, and are often associated with cancers in some fish. Some PAHs are highly toxic, and are suspected carcinogens in humans.

The UMass team was prompted to study the issue after earlier research by Lovley found that benzene degrades in the absence of oxygen, in certain conditions. PAHs are essentially groups of two to five benzene rings, Lovley noted. His collaborators on the Boston Harbor project were Mary Rothermich, a former postdoctoral researcher at UMass who is now at Harvard University, and Lory Hayes, a former graduate student who now works in industry.

The key component in the microbial action appears to be the existence of sulfate in the water, said Lovley. "As long as there is sulfate in the water, the PAHs can degrade slowly." Sulfate is a salt of sulfuric acid, and is naturally abundant in seawater, according to Lovley. These microorganisms use sulfate the same way that humans use oxygen. Whereas we use oxygen to oxidize the food that we consume, these microorganisms can oxidize PAHs and their other food sources with sulfate. In this way they can remain active in the mud at the bottom of the harbor where there is no oxygen.

In addition to Boston Harbor, the team also studied marine contaminants in San Diego, Calif., and in Latvia. For the local portion of the project, Boston Harbor sediments were pulled from the harbor near a former coal-tar plant in an area of Everett known as Island End. Coal-tar works had been in production in the area from the late 1800s to about 1960, according to Lovley. The sediments used in the study overlaid the site of a leaking underground storage tank that had been removed in the 1980s, he said.

Scientists monitored the sediment samples in the lab, replenishing the samples with fresh harbor water roughly once a month. They found that the PAHs in the collected sediments broke down 20-25 percent over 338 days – a little less than a year. "In a way, it seems slow, but if you’re thinking about the alternatives, it’s not bad to have some patience," Lovley said.

He noted that other alternatives for removing the contaminants, including dredging, are expensive and disruptive to the marine environment. Dredging also creates the additional problem of how to dispose of the contaminated mud. "Of course, you don’t want to say, ’Oh, it’s okay to keep dumping this stuff.’ The fact that it’s even there shows that the spillage rate is too fast for nature to keep up with. You have to actively protect the environment."


Note: Derek Lovley can be reached at 413-545-9651, or dlovley@microbio.umass.edu

Elizabeth Luciano | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.umass.edu/

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht How does the loss of species alter ecosystems?
18.05.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für integrative Biodiversitätsforschung (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig

nachricht Excess diesel emissions bring global health & environmental impacts
16.05.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A quantum walk of photons

Physicists from the University of Würzburg are capable of generating identical looking single light particles at the push of a button. Two new studies now demonstrate the potential this method holds.

The quantum computer has fuelled the imagination of scientists for decades: It is based on fundamentally different phenomena than a conventional computer....

Im Focus: Turmoil in sluggish electrons’ existence

An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.

We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...

Im Focus: Wafer-thin Magnetic Materials Developed for Future Quantum Technologies

Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...

Im Focus: World's thinnest hologram paves path to new 3-D world

Nano-hologram paves way for integration of 3-D holography into everyday electronics

An Australian-Chinese research team has created the world's thinnest hologram, paving the way towards the integration of 3D holography into everyday...

Im Focus: Using graphene to create quantum bits

In the race to produce a quantum computer, a number of projects are seeking a way to create quantum bits -- or qubits -- that are stable, meaning they are not much affected by changes in their environment. This normally needs highly nonlinear non-dissipative elements capable of functioning at very low temperatures.

In pursuit of this goal, researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Photonics and Quantum Measurements LPQM (STI/SB), have investigated a nonlinear graphene-based...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Marine Conservation: IASS Contributes to UN Ocean Conference in New York on 5-9 June

24.05.2017 | Event News

AWK Aachen Machine Tool Colloquium 2017: Internet of Production for Agile Enterprises

23.05.2017 | Event News

Dortmund MST Conference presents Individualized Healthcare Solutions with micro and nanotechnology

22.05.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Physicists discover mechanism behind granular capillary effect

24.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Measured for the first time: Direction of light waves changed by quantum effect

24.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Marine Conservation: IASS Contributes to UN Ocean Conference in New York on 5-9 June

24.05.2017 | Event News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>