Tech Researchers Study Pollutants in Aquifers, Sept. 9, 2002

SOCORRO, N.M., Sept. 9, 2002 -- Professor Rebecca Reiss of the New Mexico Tech biology department is heading a project that is looking closely at the biodegradation (ability to break down foreign substances) properties of microorganisms in aquifers around New Mexico.

Reiss and her research team have been taking water samples from various wells across the state. The researchers include current and former New Mexico Tech students. One former student, Peter Guerra of Rio Grande Environmental Inc., is a graduate of the New Mexico Tech master's program in environmental engineering.

Over time, contaminants from underground storage tanks have leaked into the ground, contaminating many areas in New Mexico -- over 100 of them. A great deal of the pollution comes from old gasoline storage tanks, and some of it is carcinogenic (cancer causing). The two main pollutants (or "xenobiotics," as they are called) that the Tech researchers are looking at are dibromoethane (EDB) and dichloroethane (EDC) -- toxic chemicals that are typically used in the petroleum industry.
The New Mexico Tech researchers have found that natural organisms in aquifers have evolved, adapting to this pollution, and can now break these substances down.

The long-term goal of the research project is to identify the proteins and other factors that contribute to the biodegradation abilities of these organisms.

"The process we are developing will be used to measure and monitor biodegradation rates. Eventually, this will lead to a novel method of bioremediation," Reiss says.

In the research project's current stage, Reiss and her fellow researchers are trying to refine methods to collect samples and conduct further experimentation. This process will include set ways of collecting samples, preserving the samples, setting up the experiments to determine biodegradation rates, and interpreting and applying the data collected.

After the method has been refined, the focus will shift to data collection, which will be done on the New Mexico Tech campus using various lab techniques and instrumentation.

Reiss's research work was the cover feature in a recent edition of Divining Rod, the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute magazine/newsletter. To view the online version of Divining Rod (in .pdf format), visit the New Mexico WRRI website at http://wrri.nmsu.edu.