Rutgers biologist wins a $1.03 million, 5 year contract to study how microbes can help clean up Superfund sites

June 21, 2001

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Rutgers microbiologist Lily Young has been awarded a $1.03 million five-year contract to investigate how microbes can be used to detoxify arsenic and chromium contaminants at Superfund sites.

Young, a scientist at the university's Biotechnology Center for Agriculture and the Environment at the Cook College campus, was awarded the contract by New York University Medical School in New York City, primary contractor for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' (NIEHS) Superfund Basic Research Program. The North Carolina-based NIEHS is part of the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. "The award is just additional recognition of Dr. Young's already impressive credentials and reputation as a microbiologist and researcher," said Peter Day, director of the Biotechnology Center for Agriculture and the Environment. "Rutgers is very fortunate to have a scientific investigator of such extraordinary talent."

Rutgers' role in the project, says Young, is to learn how microbes can be managed and used effectively to reduce toxic chemicals to harmless wastes, and ultimately, to develop a process to use the microbes to clean up contaminated sites.

The scientist has long believed that microbes, particularly the anaerobic variety that don't use oxygen to breathe, have been underutilized as a way to eliminate hazardous wastes. These creatures -- which scientists believe pre-date their oxygen-breathing relatives as the first life on earth -- use substances such as nitrates, iron, sulfates and carbonates in place of oxygen. In the process, notes Young, they are able to "metabolize" or eat and reduce contaminants like pesticides and other petrochemicals, turning them into mostly harmless wastes.

With the new funding, the researcher hopes to demonstrate that microbes, mostly bacteria, can have a "profound" impact on the biochemical cycling of the toxic metals arsenic and chromium, as well as petroleum byproducts such as benzene, toluene and xylene often found mixed with the metals in hazardous waste sites.

She also plans to learn which types of bacteria are most effective and the best way to use them. "To what extent do they reduce arsenic and chromium? How rapidly does reduction take place and how much is oxidized or chemically reduced, volatilized or dissolved as a result of bacterial activity?" says Young.

Similar parameters will be used by the researcher to measure how the bacteria affect benzene, toluene and xylene.

Understanding the role of different microbes will be important, says Young since not all are helpful. "While certain bacteria help reduce very toxic chromium 6 to less toxic chromium 3, other bacteria may actually increase toxicity by reducing relatively less toxic arsenic 5 to arsenic 3, a more toxic metal species," she notes.

Young holds a doctorate in environmental microbiology from Harvard University and a master's and bachelor of science in microbiology from Cornell University.
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Rutgers University

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