The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is notorious for its filth. Normally a sure fire way to contract dysentery, cancer and arsenic poisoning, the canal is now the subject of study from a diverse collaborative effort: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, biotech nonprofit GenSpace, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and data visualizers Landscape Metrics. Called the BK BioReactor, the undertaking employs a small autonomous watercraft that samples waters throughout the infamous canal (an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund site).
The researchers set out to catalog its microbial communities before the canal undergoes dredging and sub-aquatically capping as part of the Superfund cleanup later this year.
Why the Gowanus? The team aims to discover new microorganisms “unique to the urban realm.” With many urban areas facing similar pollution challenges, there may be important lessons to be learned. “The Gowanus Canal is an incubator for the evolution of such bioremediating functions, attesting to its industrial past and its capacity for self-renewal,” they stated.
The BK BioReactor (Courtesy BKBioreactor)
To carry out the task, the group are using the BK BioReactor: a mobile watercraft that takes samples and stops at 14 “Smart Docks” throughout the canal. The craft measures “water temperature, pH, salinity, and dissolved oxygen; and most importantly grant researchers and citizen scientists access to the microbiome below the cleanup cap.
A “Smart Dock” is also being used to help with the research. (Courtesy BKBioreactor)
Subsequently, an interactive microbiological map has been produced, locating all the different microorganisms, the vast majority of which are bacteria. However, in some parts of the canal, large quantities of the siphoviridae virus family can be found. For those wondering, this is not linked to syphilis (which the canal has been associated with).
That’s not to say the findings were in any way healthy however. “Many of the species identified in preliminary samplings are also found in the human gut (a result of raw sewage) while other species reveal influence of the canal’s proximity to the ocean,” the group said. “Regardless of their source, the microbial melting pot of the canal has fine-tuned its metabolism, swapping genes with neighboring communities and evolving novel functions to develop real-time strategies for the unique state of the canal.”
Other substances discovered included:
- Cresol, a toxic substance that in humans can damage the respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, blood, liver, kidney, and central nervous system.
- Arsenic, known to cause kidney damage and failure anemia and low blood pressure
- Toluene, can cause insomnia and liver and kidney damage
- Atrazine, a herbicide known to damage endocrine system in amphibians
- Aniline, probably the most scary, is used in dyes and plastics production. It is “classified as very toxic in humans”, with a probable oral lethal dose in humans at a very low level.