SC State professor's research could help with oil cleanups

Monday, July 12, 2010

An associate professor of molecular biology at South Carolina State University is on the front lines of research that could possibly help in the effort to clean up oil spills such as the disastrous one now plaguing the Gulf Coast.

Dr. Waltena Simpson, a 1991 graduate of S.C. State, is part of a bioremediation study for which she was awarded $300,000 by the university's 1890 Research & Extension Program to conduct. Simpson is working on the study in collaboration with the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken.

In the study, microbes classified as Sphingomonas are being researched to remove or reduce the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in soil and -- in the long term -- saltwater.

PAHs are a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, garbage or other organic substances like tobacco or charbroiled meat. PAHs occur in oil, coal and tar deposits and are produced as by-products of fuel burning, whether fossil fuel or biomass. As a pollutant, they are of concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic.

Simpson said she and her partner, SRNL engineer Dr. Robin L. Brigmon, are working with strains of the microbe Sphingomonas which were found in a mass of sludge contained in an old oil refinery in Poland.

"That oil refinery was once operated by BP. We had sludge removed from that oil refinery and found several bacteria. What has been demonstrated is that they are capable of degrading PAHs, which are produced when fossil fuels are refined and burned and things of that nature. What we are working on ... is trying to take a look at and identify specific genes in these organisms that give them this capability. And we're trying to enhance the expression of those genes," Simpson said.

With BP hastily working to develop ways to best remove oil from its leaking tank in the Gulf, Simpson is hoping the use of these microorganisms may one day hold the key in at least helping with that process.

"While it's a little too early to say that they can be applied to the spill -- as of right now we're still studying them -- they do hold promise because they have been shown to degrade contaminants that are produced by a process such as oil refining," Simpson said.

What will be the impact on human and marine life? Stephens said that is being studied as well.

"We have to study the impact of how it will be used in saltwater, how well it will survive there and also the impact on humans. What's good about it is that these bacteria are naturally found in soil, so we're not introducing something that isn't already found in soil," Simpson said. "And it would also be quite cost effective. A lot of the means that people utilize to try to clean up contaminants such as this are quite expensive, but this would be a natural, more eco-friendly way to do this and cheaper as well."

Bioremediation can be defined as any process that uses microorganisms, fungi, green plants or their enzymes to return the natural environment altered by contaminants to its original condition.

"That's why this would be bioremediation," Simpson said. "You're using microorganisms to clean up contamination. And that's why it's a preferred way because it's natural and we're using microorganisms that occur naturally and it's most cost effective. So, usually there's less of a negative impact on the environment and more of a positive one."

She said she and her research partner are trying to increase the rate at which the microbes degrade PAHs.

"The questions are, can we enhance that? Can we make them more efficient in what they do?" Simpson said, noting that the mission of the 1890 Research & Extension Office includes improving the environment.

"This project falls right into that area. What I enjoy most about this work is being able to work on something that could have a positive impact not just on the immediate area, but can be seen in terms of having a positive national and even global effect. We have PAHs found worldwide because you have so many industrialized nations which are now refining fossil fuels," Simpson said. "I'm real proud to be a part of something that could have such a positive global effect and also being able to introduce students to something that can be so far reaching as well."

While Simpson said it may be several years before the research will be fully implemented, it is promising.

"It should be. We are trying very hard to accomplish objectives. We know that there is a critical need for such organisms, and we're trying very hard to produce that," she said. "We realize the positive impact we're having, and we're very anxious in trying to get these strains applied so that we can, hopefully, start removing PAHs from the soil and the environment."