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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UMB Prof Researches How Bacteria can Reduce Algae Booms

Jennifer Bowen, a biology professor at University of Massachusetts Boston is researching ways to curtail algae blooms on coastlines through the reduction of nitrate levels. Algae blooms involving Macroalgae on the Cape Cod coast ruin the swimming experience, decrease tourism, and starve animals and plants of oxygen.
Humans can increase nitrate levels by improperly disposing of waste and with chemical fertilizers that wash off from crop fields and lawns down into the ocean.

Professor Bowen sees promise in specific types of bacteria that promote clean water. She and other UMass Boston researchers are developing a system for feeding carbon to this bacteria so more nitrates are cleaned out. One type of bacteria found in salt marshes also turns the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, into organic carbon.

“By promoting restoration and preservation of salt marshes, you’re helping combat [climate change] and nitrogen removal which leads to cleaner water.”

UMass Boston researchers are wary of the helpful bacteria also harming the environment. Sometimes these bacteria convert nitrates into nitrogen gas. This in itself isn’t problematic because the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen gas. But Bowen says there is a risk “[if the chemical process becomes] shortened by a step,” and nitrogen oxide is produced instead of nitrogen gas.

“Nitrous oxide is a very potent gas, way more potent than CO2.”

Additionally, researchers have considered the possibility that bacteria could pull Mercury from the environment and produce Methylmercury, although no evidence yet indicates this is happening. They’re conducting further experiments to investigate. Methylmercury, more toxic than elemental Mercury, can accumulate inside the bodies of organisms.

Bowen says the public can combat algae blooms by choosing alternative landscaping options. She also suggests buying organically grown produce and eating less meat. It takes a lot more energy to raise a cow than a vegetable.

UMass Boston undergraduates and graduates assist Bowen with her research in the campus labs. Bowen strives to teach her students majoring in chemistry and biology that medical school doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal. There are alternatives.

“Showing alternative pathways for those who are worried about the planet. Doing environmental biology. Understanding what’s happening in ecosystems and knowing what’s going on in our waters and coast.”
“We sit here on the peninsula by water [but] there is a disconnect.”