Ming-Kuo Lee and James Saunders of the College of Sciences and Mathematics are working with Alison Keimowitz from Vassar College to determine the effects of oil on arsenic crystals and mercury in the coastal wetlands.
A variety of bacteria in the wetland waters feed on oil contaminants.
“If you have a high influx of oil, it can stimulate the activities of natural bacteria,” Lee said. “These activities can potentially release the toxic metals.”
Active bacteria consume oxygen in the water, and in this environment, solid arsenic can be dissolved into the wetlands.
It could then be absorbed by bacteria and plankton and transferred up the food chain, increasing in concentration until the toxins pose serious health risks for humans.
Lee’s research will begin in October and will last about one year.
One of the grants will be used to purchase a FlowCAM.
“The FlowCAM is a specialized laser microscope that can very rapidly identify planktonic organisms as large as 3 millimeters, down to 3 microns,” said Anthony Moss of the College of Sciences and Mathematics. Moss was one of the names attached to the FlowCAM grant. “Sea water flows through tubing in front of the microscope optics, and a very fast camera records an image of the object as it moves by.”
The device will arrive in October and will be accompanied by FlowCAM technicians to instruct Moss and the other researchers in its use.
Stephen Bullard, from the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, is studying parasites of fish as biosensors.
Parasites can grow within a fish or can attach to its exterior, and many parasites must travel between multiple hosts.
“We hypothesize that if any one of the parasite’s required hosts is missing, we will observe a lower abundance of that parasite species, or that parasite will be eliminated from the ecosystem,” Bullard said.
If the dispersant-mixed crude oil is affecting the hosts, the number of parasites should be affected similarly.
Kenneth Halanych is participating in additional NSF research with the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of New Hampshire. They hope to achieve a better understanding of the biodiversity of benthic zones of small animals living in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as how man-made disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon spill will affect them.
Benthic zones are communities of aquatic life at the lowest level of a body of water.
Other grant winners included Prabhakar Clement, Clifford Lange, Ah Jeong Son and Dongye Zhao, from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, who were awarded an NSF Major Research Instrumentation grant to construct a laboratory to serve the engineers while they research the effects of crude oil and dispersants on a soil and water environment.
The FlowCAM grant was awarded to Moss, Kenneth Halanych and Mark Liles of the College of Sciences and Mathematics, and Alan Wilson of the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures in the College of Agriculture.