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 Successful calculation of human and natural influence on cloud formation
04.11.2016 | Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

nachricht Invasive Insects Cost the World Billions Per Year
04.10.2016 | University of Adelaide

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: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Porous crystalline materials: TU Graz researcher shows method for controlled growth

07.12.2016 | Materials Sciences

Simple processing technique could cut cost of organic PV and wearable electronics

06.12.2016 | Materials Sciences

3-D printed kidney phantoms aid nuclear medicine dosing calibration

06.12.2016 | Medical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>