Biology

Department Spotlight

Faculty-Student Research Team Tackles Pollutants

Associate Professor of Biology Frank Caccavo, Jr., and other researchers are racing the clock to keep radioactive wastes in Southeastern Washington's groundwater from reaching the Columbia River. Carried by a slow-moving aquifer, these toxic leftovers from atomic bomb production at the Hanford Site in Richland, Wash., could reach the Columbia within 30 years and wreak ecological havoc downstream.

Caccavo and his students, along with research partners at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland and at Montana State University, are exploring a technique called bioaugmentation that uses bacteria to neutralize pollutants. Caccavo's team is studying the Shewanella alga organism, which metabolizes toxic metals dissolved in water and converts the metal molecules to a state where they bond to solid particles. Attached to solids, the pollutants' migration is significantly slowed if not stalled.

"The engineers at Hanford believe the metals, if undisturbed, would remain in that state for several decades and would represent a much less immediate threat to the Columbia," says Caccavo, who joined Whitworth's faculty in 2000.

With a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trusts, Caccavo's research team conducted experiments that confirmed the Shewanella algae can survive in the Hanford aquifer, if provided with a particular nutrient, and would not significantly affect the local ecology. They also discovered that the bacteria don't survive in high numbers, so Caccavo is seeking new funding to explore techniques for increasing the survival rate.

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