Sandra McLellan has a hunch that the beaches along Florida’s Gulf Coast affected by the oil spill have something to reveal about how nature reacts to water pollution.
So she and members of her laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Great Lakes WATER Institute went to the Panhandle in June to do something they’ve done thousands of times on the beaches of Lake Michigan: They took samples of sand.
Three teams sampled 21 beaches from the Panhandle to the Louisiana border, a stretch of more than 400 miles, for “baseline” sand, samples that were unaffected by the oil, but they also came away with samples of contaminated sand.
McLellan and her lab members plan to use a process they have perfected on Milwaukee’s beaches to identify changes that occur in the bacteria found in sand affected by pollution. She is interested in whether the microbial shifts that happen in contaminated sand may serve as indicators or “sentinels” of biological impacts in the water.
“When you look at coastal regions, there are a number of similarities between marine and fresh water,” she says. “Certain bacteria break down oil and actually use it as a food source, so we want to investigate, for example, whether those populations increase in the sand.”
Her lab has developed DNA-based methods to determine the source of Great Lakes beach pollution.
Based on her research in the Great Lakes region, McLellan says there’s definitely a difference in microbial communities of polluted beaches compared to the pristine. But that is all the researchers know at this point.
She says her lab is in a unique position to contribute to the science that happens around the cleanup of the Gulf beaches because it is a partner in the Oceans and Human Health Initiative through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
She is in the process of seeking grant funding from the National Institutes of Health to complete the study.
Meanwhile, the lab was excited to be able to apply the work they perfected in the lab on a beach disaster of such magnitude.
“The real value of all our Great Lakes studies is that the information we have found is applicable in a disaster such as this one,” says McLellan. “We are able to respond with techniques we’ve already developed.”
With collaborator Elizabeth Alm of Central Michigan University, McLellan is preparing the data from her Great Lakes beach studies for publication.