Prof. Pecher's Study of Road Salt Contamination Shows That Salt-Loving Microbes Can Be Used as Biomarkers
September 5, 2019
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Salt-loving microbes that crop up in the soil as a result of the use of road salt can be used as a biomarker to detect where these salts have contaminated the environment, says Wolf T. Pecher, associate professor in the University of Baltimore's Division of Science, Information Arts and Technologies and lead author of a new study of these microbes. The paper was published Sept. 4 in PLOS ONE, a multidisciplinary journal community that specializes in research across science, engineering, medicine, and the related social sciences and humanities.
Working with a team of cross-disciplinary researchers, including Kelli Crowe, B.A., '15, and Folasade Ekulona, B.A. '14, both graduates from UB's Environmental Sustainability program, alongside Shiladitya DasSarma, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University System of Maryland's Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology. Prof. Pecher and the team found that salt-loving (halophilic) microbes become persistent members of the larger microbial community, which in turn makes them potential biomarkers for road salt contamination in soils.
"Salt pollution damages more than roadside vegetation, material goods, and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and water systems," Pecher says. "Our paper shows increased numbers of salt-loving microbes in soils exposed to road salt. As part of our work, we developed an easy-to-use 'spot test' that checks for the microbe and allows us to evaluate salt exposure in the environment."
Prof. Pecher says the test could become part of a standard array of processes to determine if a soil sample is contaminated.
"Rising sodium concentrations are occurring in fresh-water reservoirs intended for drinking, and that may contribute to hypertension in people," says DasSarma. "Our finding ultimately provides a potential way to detect salt contamination in soil and prevent excess salt from getting into this water supply, which could have a significant public health impact."
"Road salt and its use as a de-icer is a huge concern, environmentally, economically and health wise," Pecher says. "Knowing where it has gotten into the soil is the first step toward mitigation."
A 2014 study by the U.S Geological Survey found that road salt concentrations often exceed toxic levels in many streams in the northern United States, and the frequency of these contaminations has nearly doubled in two decades.
Read an abstract and the content from Prof. Pecher's paper.
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