KCRG-TV: UI Students Search for Gulf Coast Ecosystem Solution

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

By Jami Brinton
KCRG-TV and Cedar Rapids Gazette

IOWA CITY – Two University of Iowa students curious about how the Gulf Coast oil spill is affecting plant life are eagerly working to figure out a way to help the plants survive the exposure to oil.

“We’re going to try and find a way to help Mother Nature deal with the disaster,” said Aaron Gwinnup, an environmental engineering graduate student from Oxford.

Gwinnup and undergraduate mechanical engineering student Elliott Beenk spent five days in the Gulf Coast region earlier this month searching for oil covered plants.

“I expected the oil to be pretty much everywhere [and] to come back covered in oil” said Beenk, 20, of DeWitt. “[I expected] to have no problem finding it but we had a little bit different experience.”

The students were not allowed to access the spots with confirmed oil. British Petroleum and the United States Coast Guard had those areas blocked off. Beenk also oil was not visibly present in the spots they anticipated.

Beenk and Gwinnup brought back a solitary Spartina alterniaflora plant that’s commonly known as smooth cord grass.

“It doesn’t appear to be oiled,” said Gwinnup, 37, of Oxford. “There’s still a chance that it could have dilute quantities of oil in it.”

The students plan to study the plant further to identify any presence of oil. They will also plant 100 plugs of the smooth cord grass into test tubes. During the plant’s growth, Beenk and Gwinnup will contaminate the test tubes with oil, and then observe the plants to see how they can break down the oil.

“We’re going to determine the dosage that these plants can handle and process oil,” Beenk said.

Beenk references past research that concluded that plants can process environments of oil up to sixty percent.

“These plants can actually grow and degrade the oil when the environment is 30-60 percent oil,” Beenk said. “[It is] pretty impressive.”

Gwinnup said the study could also identify ways that the local ecosystem could be augmented to speed up the plant’s ability to break down the oil.

“It’s possible, for instance, that specific nutrients could be added to help the plant and its microbes break down the oil even faster,” Gwinnup explained. “In the long term, that’s kind of our dream: that we would come up with a combination of nutrients and microbes to break down disasters like this as quickly as possible.”

Beenk believes he can do something about the oil spill, even here in Iowa.

“With the chance to go down there, it is like ‘Oh, this is my problem now,’” he said.

Beenk’s and Gwinnup’s research could take up to one year.

To watch the news video, go to http://www.kcrg.com/news/local/97336194.html.