Graduate student studies cleaning tainted streams

Jeremy Hebebrand

Fish are dying, the water is turning orange and there are microorganisms all over the place. This is the scenario for a watershed located west of Kent.

Dozens of tributaries run into the Huff Run stream that flows 10 miles into other streams that ultimately connect to the Mississippi River. These tributaries run through areas where mining used to occur, causing toxic metals to be carried downstream, said Suchismita Ghosh, a graduate student in biological science.

Ghosh has been studying an area of the tributary affected by the mines.

“The microorganisms that are there could potentially be used for bioremediation,” he said.

Bioremediation is the process of using microorganisms, fungi or enzymes to return an environment altered by contaminants to its original condition. Bioremediation is more frequently being used to clean up oil spills in the ocean.

Biology professor Laura Leff is assisting with the research.

“Finding microorganisms that can be used for bioremediation is cost-effective versus other methods of cleaning up an area,” Leff said.

These microorganisms live in “extreme conditions” where the pH levels range from moderate to highly acidic, Ghosh said. The temperature levels of the water can even drop into the negatives. The study is also trying to determine if these microorganisms are helping each other survive because there are very low nutrition levels in the area, Ghosh said.

The Huff Run Watershed Restoration Partnership, also known as HRWRP, is an organization dedicated to cleaning up the tributaries affected by acid mine drainage. Other problems include illegal dumping, sewage influences and oil and gas pollution. By cleaning up the area, aquatic life and other organisms will be able to live in the tributaries once more, according to the HRWRP Web site.

“Streams are a very important part of society,” Leff said. The materials in the stream could potentially have a negative impact on the residential areas that are located nearby, she said.

By studying the tributaries it may be possible to clean them up using bioremediation and it may even yield new discoveries, said Ghosh.

Contact sciences reporter Jeremy Hebebrand at [email protected].