Researchers at Wayne State University are developing an alternative method of monitoring groundwater for toxins.
The process is usually laborious and expensive; this requires the installation of wells, which can cost local public health departments millions. Or with phytoscreening, researchers can test plant tissues for contaminants from the water they absorb. But some contaminants, such as volatile organic compounds, are often not concentrated enough to be detected in stems or leaves.
One of the lead researchers, Dr Glen Hood, an assistant professor of biological sciences, noted that they could test for galls – the places where plant tissue swells when insects lay their eggs in certain plants.
“If the galls act as vacuum cleaners to suck up all the nutrients so the gall itself can grow, maybe those pollutants and toxins would be captured in that water,” he said, “and they could serve as places in the plant where higher concentrations of toxins, pollutants or chemicals accumulate.”
Hood said they’re working to understand what types of gall-forming plants and insects work well for testing different types of contaminants, and if there’s a best time to remove and test for galls. He noted that two undergraduate researchers were instrumental: Sarah Black, who currently works in the lab, and Connor Socrates, who has since graduated from WSU.
Another lead researcher, Dr. Shirley Papuga, associate professor of environmental science and geology, said she hopes this new groundwater testing method can help with seasonal monitoring in settings such as a growing plume of dioxane – a carcinogen – in Ann Arbor, or a “green slime zone” in Madison Heights.
“I think one of the other things we can relate to are some of the public health issues that are pervasive in Detroit, like premature births,” she said. “We can examine and identify overlaps between parts of the community that may have certain public health issues and areas that have these contaminants in their plant tissues.”
Since this method uses plant material above ground, Papuga said, it may be something people can better see and appreciate.
“The galls, even though it’s this tumor-like parasitic growth on plants, they’re kind of charismatic and people are excited to identify them,” she said. “And so, it’s another way to get the public, citizen scientists, to be interested and excited about an environmental issue.”
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