Scientists look for microbes that can live in toxic mud

Sunday, October 21, 2001

MOONACHIE, N.J. -- Michael Jackson sinks his feet into blackened, mercury-tainted mud on the edge of a swamp littered with old, broken bottles and smelling a little like gasoline. He takes a metal spatula, sniffs the dirt and scoops a hunk of it into a 50-milligram test tube.

"There's a lot of bacteria in this soil," said Jackson, a Rutgers University microbiology graduate student. "They'll eat anything they can."

Since last October, Jackson and fellow graduate student Jann Weile have been coming to Berry's Creek to collect the most toxic, contaminated soil they can find. The creek, one of the most chemically extreme environments in New Jersey, is a Superfund site and former headquarters of a mercury plant in the Meadowlands.

Jackson and Weile are in search of pay dirt in the mud, microbes that can survive in unconventional, toxic conditions. Those microbes, Jackson says, may be used one day to create a new antibiotic, an industrial enzyme, possibly a bacteria that can help clean up toxic sites.

"Someone's trash is someone else's gold," he said, wading in the sticky mud.

Doubled his output

Jackson and Rutgers professor Gerben Zylstra have a three-year contract with Diversa Corp., a San Diego-based biotechnology company, to provide soil samples from several sites at the Meadowlands.

Diversa isn't saying if it has found anything useful. But since collections began, the company has asked Jackson to double his output from 100 to 200 samples a year.

Diversa has collected samples from hot boiling springs at Yellowstone National Park and Antarctica in the hopes of finding proteins or molecules that have unique genetic properties, company spokeswoman Hillary Theakston said.

"The presence of toxic metals and other chemicals would have some unique survival properties," Theakston said. "It would be really hard if you can imagine trying to recreate those conditions."

A Rutgers professor who met Diversa representatives at a conference suggested the Meadowlands, wetlands that have been rehabilitated over the years to foster the growth of muskrat, swans, phragmites grass and several endangered species.

For many decades before that, however, the area was known as a dumping ground for toxic waste, other trash, and, some suspected, possibly dead bodies. Authorities once searched the swampland for the body of presumed-dead union leader James Hoffa.

Jackson said the Meadowlands is ideal for the Diversa research because it has a history that is well-documented by a group called the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute, which works with Rutgers and the Hackensack Meadowlands Developmental Commission.

Whether Jackson is looking for hydrocarbon spills or heavy metals, the institute will point him in the right direction.

One day in July, Jackson and Weile drove to a warehouse parking lot, crossed a wooden bridge over a mud flat and hiked through 10-foot high weeds before arriving at Berry's Creek. They stepped carefully down the bank into the mud. Weile donned thigh-high rubber boots and plastic gloves to collect samples from the water, while Jackson stayed on the shore to scoop up the mud.

The blacker the mud, he says, the more toxic. A bluish-pink sheen in a site like this is also a giveaway for heavy chemical contamination, he said.

"If you can find a bacteria that can live in an oil spill and manipulate its genetics," Jackson said, "you might have something."

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