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iLabs: Last Friday’s Question of the Day Revisited

July 20, 2014

Last week I posted this picture, and asked, “How did we use all of these things in the Micro World iLab?”

Micro lab classroom sign with motor oil, Twinkies, grass, and spectrophotometer

Micro World iLab Sign Hints at “Strange Connections”

So for today, let’s talk  motor oil.

This past May and June on the first Thursdays of those months,  I taught a class entitled “Pollution, Bioremediation, and Toxicology.” 

I framed the class with the story of the Naugatuck River in Connecticut, where I grew  up.  We looked at its  history of terrible pollution due to the century or so of industrial waste and sewage being dumped in it—as well as its journey back to life, a journey not just sought by but demanded by the local population, and their grassroots efforts to clean it up and make the local municipalities and industries take action.

When I was in elementary school we would walk over the bridge for the Naugatuck and guess what color it would be that day–the local woolen mill up-river would dump its excess dyes into the water. Some days it was purple, some yellow, some red, other days green.

Downstream a number of metal, brass and rubber companies dumped toxic chemicals directely into the water. An often repeated statement was that if you fell into the Naugatuck, you didn’t drown, you “dissolved.”  The river was once so polluted it actually caught fire.

The resurrection of that river is also the story of the birth of the EPA and the Clean Water Act, but even more so,  the story of what is possible when the average citizens demand change and take action.

As part of the class we viewed video footage of the river then and now, and used the river’s story as a springboard to an overview of the toxicity of pollution and how such an environmental problem can affect the human body.

Lastly, we tackled the question, ‘So now that it’s a mess, how do we fix it?’

Bioremediation, which is the use of living organisms to clean up pollution, is a popular topic these days.  In the wake of oil spills, we often hear about clean-up efforts that use living organisms like bacteria to break down the oil. But just because bacteria CAN break down oil, does it solve the problem?  Is this a quick process that can clean up a mess overnight?

In our class we used a science kit that included bacteria that are supposed to eat up/break down the oil. We set up flasks with olive oil, canola oil, and motor oil and added the bacteria, which we’d already started growing so they were robust and ready to attack the oil. 

We let the cultures go for a solid month, expecting to see oil gone or at least diminished.  Instead,  the bacteria had barely made a dent in the oils.

The point we emphasized with the students is that while bacteria might be able to break down some oil, it is not fast, not always that effective, and has its own problems.

Research now is looking at fungi as a possibly better solution to the oil cleanup problem. The use of fungi for environmental cleanup is called “mycoremediation” and it is attracting attention as a possibly quicker way to achieve results. One particular proponent of this approach is Paul Stamets, who has been working to promote this method. 

I’m talking to a researcher in Washington state right now about how to set up an in-lab exhibit that mirrors the use of fungi this way, such as in NYC to clean up a polluted branch of the East River and also some oil-contaminated soil near a fuel depot. We will be working with Bob Alderink in the Natural World iLab as he expands his exhibit on bioremediation (especially using duckweed) to include fungi.

So regarding the picture of Motor Oil, now you know.  Coming up in the next week or so will be the connection between grass and a spectrophotometer, and of course, how Twinkies end up in a lab!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    July 20, 2014 4:22 pm

    I like this, Thanks, Pat

  2. Todd Folsom permalink
    July 31, 2014 7:39 pm

    One of my earliest volunteer activities was to go with the Junior Staff of the Mid-Fairfield County Youth Museum to clean junk out of the Saugatuck River in southwestern CT. Very close to your river, Deb, in both name and geographic location.

    • August 2, 2014 2:29 pm

      So you were one of the pioneers of reclaiming those rivers! My hat it off to you, and my thanks. 🙂

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