Macquarie Island clean-up gets down to grassroots

elephant-sealIn addition to ironing out scientific problems, Sharyn Gaskin had to dodge elephant seals and curious penguins to set up a bioremediation project on Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean.

In a 12-month study jointly supervised by Flinders and the Australian Antarctic Division, the Environmental Health postdoctoral fellow is testing the capacity of the island’s native grass to assist in breaking down contamination caused by fuel spills.

The roots of grasses can make a significant contribution to the breakdown of hydrocarbons in the soil by secreting compounds that stimulate the action of ‘oil-eating’ micro-organisms in the root zone.

Dr Gaskin said there have been a number of fuel spills around the two major structures (fuel farm and power house) on the sub-Antarctic island in recent decades.

“The project is part of a five-year plan to find out how much fuel is in the soil, where it is, and to find the best technology to clean it up,” Dr Gaskin said.

“Another part of the project, other than the actual clean-up, is to develop remediation targets for cold regions.”

During her three-month tour on the island, Dr Gaskin undertook soil and microbiological analyses and made comparative measurements of microbial activity in grassed and ungrassed areas. She also set up experimental sites that will be maintained by the sole scientist wintering at the research station.

In a bid to optimise microbial activity, some sites have been equipped to feed extra oxygen and nutrition to affected soils.

There are some positive signs: the grass tussocks show a readiness to grow on polluted soil, and because root systems tend to mirror the biomass above the ground, it is likely that the naturally dense growths of native grass have significant potential for remediation.

“Once their role has been established, we will look to try and propagate them in the areas that are more heavily polluted,” Dr Gaskin said.

And where are her grass samples incubating? In the laboratory fridge, of course.

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