Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

BK BioReactor visualizes Gowanus Canal microbial communities

Posted 23 Sep 2017 / 0
2017-09-23aGowanus Canal images courtesy All-Nite Images via Wikimedia Commons

My colleague Romie Littrell referred me to a really interesting project of the BK BioReactor group that visualizes microbial community diversity in the Gowanus Canal:

For those who are not familiar with the Gowanus Canal, an historically-important Brooklyn shipping lane that is now a Superfund site. The BK BioReactor team sampled the waters of the canal and used DNA sequencing to identify distinct microbial groups and their metabolic functions across the length of the canal. That data underlies their visualization.

This is a very cool project on a number of fronts. Although this visualization is rather simple — it allows the user to see the location and relative abundance of a particular subset of microbes (or microbial metabolic pathways) on the canal — it is also very powerful. Because the different microbial taxa are displayed on a phylogenetic tree, it is possible to explore how evolutionary origin maps to locations on the canal. There’s also the potential to look at function across geographic space via the metabolic pathways that can be visualized. Are different places on the canal supporting different kinds of microbes? Does this difference map to function? These questions can be answered by the BK BioReactor visualization.

The big thing that this visualization left me wondering was why? Are there other measures of the Gowanus Canal environment that can explain why some microbes are more abundant in some areas and not in others? And what does this have to do with the history of industrial pollution on the canal?

A bigger message that this project highlights is that humans don’t destroy living communities, but we can dramatically alter them. Microbes have evolved to metabolize an amazing diversity of compounds, and so even our industrial pollutants can serve as resources for microbial communities. And perhaps there’s some hope that in understanding these communities we might also gain a microbial ally in mitigating these sites.

A Minor Post, Anthropogenic Change, Biology (general), Bogs & Wetlands, Community Ecology, Conservation Biology, DNA Barcoding, Ecological Restoration, Educational Software and Apps, Experiments (General), Freshwater Ecosystems, Genetics, Geography, Information Design, Intertidal Zones, Microbial Ecology, Web

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