UMass Boston Scientist Studies Bacteria that Rehabilitate the Cape Cod Coast

Anna Pinkert | September 04, 2015
Green areas of this beach are covered in algae. The middle section has no algae because of a permeable reactive barrier.

Green areas of this beach are covered in algae. The middle section has no algae because of a permeable reactive barrier.
Image by: Chris Weidman

If you’re feeling unwell, your doctor might recommend some probiotic-enriched yogurt to restore you to good health. A UMass Boston scientist imagines a future in which we will be able to prescribe “a probiotic for the environment” to help restore coastal waters.

New research from UMass Boston professor of biology Jen Bowen and graduate student Kenly Hiller has revealed new information about bacteria that could help reduce algal blooms in coastal waters. Bowen hopes that in the future, scientists could create a pill loaded with these helpful bacteria, and flush it down the toilet to digest our waste before it enters the groundwater.

“If we can figure out which bacteria are removing nitrates, and how they are doing it, we could, in theory, put more helpful bacteria back into the environment,” says Bowen.

Nitrates encourage blooms of algae to grow along coastlines, and when the algae decomposes it removes oxygen from the water, and thus harms other forms of plant and animal life. One example of this is the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, an area of low oxygen water that forms at the mouth of the Mississippi River every year due to an influx of nitrates. Bowen’s research focuses on bacteria that can remove nitrates from coastal systems.

Bowen studied two beaches in Waquoit Bay between Falmouth and Mashpee on Cape Cod. One beach had “permeable reactive barriers” -- woodchip barriers buried deep under the sand -- and one did not. Bowen found that the densely packed woodchips created an ideal environment for bacteria that consume nitrates.  One bacterium, called OD1, was particularly abundant in the wood chip barriers. Bowen will now work to determine whether OD1 or other prevalent bacteria are responsible for nitrate removal. Bowen sees the woodchip barriers as one tool among many that can help rehabilitate coastal ecosystems.

“We’re going to have to make good consumer choices, but we’re also going to need to engineer strategies to mitigate the human impact on the environment,” says Bowen. “We may never get back to ‘pristine’ waters, but we can aim for a new normal.”

As human activity increases, more nitrates have found their way into coastal waters, and the result has been less healthy coastlines that are more susceptible to the negative impacts of storms, rising temperatures, and changes in rainfall.

The next step in Bowen’s research will be to look for specific genes that promote nitrogen removal in the OD1 and other bacteria, and to examine whether there are any negative environmental effects from the way that the bacteria process nitrates. Bowen and Hiller will build miniature barriers in their Integrated Sciences Complex lab, and document which bacteria are present in what quantities and how they change the chemistry of the water.

The barriers in Waquoit Bay were installed by Lombardo and Associates Engineering Company along with Joe Vallino and Ken Foreman from the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. Bowen received funding to study the barriers from the MIT Sea Grant program. Hiller received an EPA Star Graduate Fellowship for her work on the project.

Tags: algae , bacteria , beaches , biology , bowen , cape cod , coastal , coastline , csm , ecology

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