Look Who’s Coming to Dinner…Bacteria that Eat the Gowanus Sludge—TNOC Podcast Episode 7

Philip Silva, New York.  David Maddox, New York City. 
12 May 2016

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Also available at iTunes.

Bringing together specialists across disciplinary boundaries, sediment sampling has occurred across 14 sites and 3 seasons. Photo: Josh Johnson (www.joshethanjohnson.com)
Bringing together specialists across disciplinary boundaries, sediment sampling has occurred across 14 sites and 3 seasons. Photo: Josh Johnson (www.joshethanjohnson.com)

Story notes: The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is well known throughout New York City as a nearly two-mile-long trench filled with sewage and chemicals left behind by years of neglectful pollution.

Though the canal is slated for a multi-million dollar cleanup courtesy of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Program, a team of local scientists, landscape architects, and community activists have discovered a very different kind of remediation effort underway in the sludge beneath the bottom of the Gowanus.

This podcast episode, produced by Philip Silva, catches up with members of the BK BioReactor project and their efforts to find out whether anything can live in the sort of toxic habitat provided by a place like the Gowanus Canal.

BKBR_Phylo Tree_RGB LEFT

This phylogenetic tree illustrates the diversity of life found in the Gowanus Canal, a result of its parent microbiological makeup, the introduction of foreign materials through increased trade and shipping, and subsequent adaptations to the urban, industrial environment. Credit: BK BioReactor team (www.bkbioreactor.com).
This phylogenetic tree illustrates the diversity of life found in the Gowanus Canal, a result of its parent microbiological makeup, the introduction of foreign materials through increased trade and shipping, and subsequent adaptations to the urban, industrial environment. Credit: BK BioReactor team (www.bkbioreactor.com).
Left to right: Matthew Siebert, Ian Quate, and Elizabeth Henaff of BK BioReactor. Photo: Josh Johnson (www.joshethanjohnson.com)
Left to right: Matthew Seibert, Ian Quate, and Elizabeth Henaff of BK BioReactor. Photo: Josh Johnson (www.joshethanjohnson.com)

Despite all the pollution, it turns out that the canal is teeming with microscopic life, and some kinds of bacteria are actually able to live on the waste that humans have left behind. Not just the sewage, either. Some bacteria seem to be able to feed off the industrial solvents and petrochemical products that line the bottom of the canal. As these microbes nosh their way through the potluck of pollutants on the E.P.A.’s list of hazardous substances, they break them down into safer compounds and elements, leaving the canal just a tiny bit less toxic over time—a long, long time.

BK BioReactor is a collaboration between Dr. Elizabeth Henaff, a researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College, Ian Quate, a designer at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, and Matthew Seibert, the Creative Director of Landscape Metrics. The project also draws support from GenSpace, a community biotechnology lab in Brooklyn, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a group working to clean up the watershed that drains into the canal.

Philip Silva 

New York

On The Nature of Cities

Philip Silva

About the Writer:
Philip Silva

Philip's work focuses on informal adult learning and participatory action research in social-ecological systems. He is dedicated to exploring nature in all of its urban expressions.

Philip Silva

Philip Silva

TreeKit, Cornell University Ithaca, NY USA Philip Silva is a Ph.D. student in Natural Resources at Cornell University. His work focuses on informal adult learning and participatory action research in social-ecological systems. For the past four years, Silva taught courses in urban forestry, environmental history, and design at The New School. In 2011, Silva was one of 25 national leaders convened by the US Forest Service to participate in the “Vibrant Cities and Urban Forests” task force. He has worked with some of NYC’s leading environmental organizations, including Sustainable South Bronx, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Just Food, and the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance. Philip is a recipient of the 2010 iLAB Residency of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature, and Dance (“iLAND”) and a 2009 Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. He currently serves as co-founder and co-director of TreeKIT, an initiative to measure, map, and collaboratively manage urban forests. A native of Newark, NJ with a graduate degree in urban policy analysis, Silva is dedicated to exploring nature in all of its urban expressions.

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