Environmental Protection

Study to Uncover Pollution in Clinch, Powell Rivers

With a $165,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Melissa Lobegeier, Ph.D., will soon begin a second study focused on water quality, and this time, she will focus her research in the Clinch and Powell Rivers of southwestern Virginia, where pollution from mining is a concern.

An assistant professor of geosciences at Middle Tennessee State University, Lobegeier will examine two types of microorganisms that are indicators of pollution; namely, thecamoebians and foraminifera, which are hard-shelled, single-celled organisms that tend to be very well preserved because of their hard shells. While a lot remains unknown about them because it’s difficult to keep them alive in the lab, Lobegeier says they are believed to catch food particles by sticking protoplasm out through holes in the shells. Their reproductive cycle is something of a puzzle.

“They have an asexual phase where they reproduce by splitting up their protoplasm up into a whole lot of juveniles and then regrow,” she says. “And then they have a sexual phase where that asexual generation produces the egg and the sperm, which then they release from their shell. And they come together to form the next juveniles, who reproduce asexually.”

However, Lobegeier says it’s not the methods by which the organisms reproduce that determine their value to scientists. Instead, it’s the speed with which those methods take place.

“Generally, their life cycle is less than a year,” she says. “When you have pollution coming into an area, we will lose the ones that aren’t very tolerant of pollution, and the ones that are opportunistic and can tolerate pollution will start to reproduce quicker. You’ll see a big shift in the population.”

Researchers know more about foraminifera, which are found in brackish and salt water, than about thecamoebians, which are found in fresh water. Lobegeier says the oil industry examines foraminifera to date the ages of sediment beds in the search for new sources of oil.

Foraminifera figured heavily in the other project Lobegeier recently completed in Florida. She and her students examined paper mill pollution in the Fenholloway River near Perry, in Eleven Mile Creek near Pensacola and in St. Andrew’s Bay near Panama City. In the case of the Fenholloway, researchers discovered that female mosquito fish near a paper mill that dumped effluent into the river were developing masculine characteristics.

“We’re trying to see how far the pollution is flowing from the source into the Gulf of Mexico because all of these areas are areas where people go to swim and particularly to fish,” Lobegeier says. “I think it’s important to know whether the pollution is making it into those areas and whether we should continue to eat that food.”

The Florida project was funded with a $12,494 internal grant from MTSU’s Faculty Research and Creative Activity Committee. But it wasn’t used to buy sophisticated laboratory equipment. Lobegeier drew on her Australian culture to integrate the yabby pump into the research.

A yabby pump is a steel cylinder tube with a plunger device that enables shrimpers to suck little crustaceans called yabbies out of the holes they burrow into the seashore. Lobegeier finds it useful for drawing tubular cores of sediment from the rivers, which she and her students wrap in PVC pipe and aluminum foil and secure with duct tape. The cores are then frozen to preserve them and the microorganisms inside for future examination.

“I’m hoping it will give us a better idea of how the rivers have been affected because with the Clinch/Powell river project I’m hoping to core and go back to pre-European times,” Lobegeier says.

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