Grant could help warn of arsenic dangers

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2 million biocomplexity grant to a USF professor to conduct research on the effects arsenic has on ecosystems.

The grant was obtained through a proposal submitted by the lead researcher in the project, Thomas Pichler, an assistant professor in USF’s geology department.

Pichler said the grant will provide further research into a site of hydrothermal activity he found while diving off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Pichler found a sample from the site contained 400 times the normal concentration of arsenic than that usually found in seawater.

This large amount is enough to kill most marine life, Pichler said, but the creatures living in this environment have not been affected by the elevated levels.

One of the goals of the research will be to measure the amount of arsenic being transmitted to the creatures living in the environment, Pichler said.

“We know there is a lot of arsenic in this environment,” said Pichler. “But we want to find out how much of this arsenic is available for biological uptake.”

Pichler said the research could provide a means for removing arsenic from drinking water throughout the world.

The research from this grant will require the talents of four additional professors who come from a variety of disciplines.

USF biologists James Gary and Gary Huxel, USF marine scientist Pamela Hallock-Muller and biochemist Jan Amend from Washington University in St. Louis will collaborate with Pichler throughout the research.

The research will be centered around the topic of biocomplexity, Pichler said. “Biocomplexity describes how complex natural systems are, and how different organisms are affected by various influences in their environments,” Pichler said.

The focus of the research will be on the orange coating on rocks found at the site in Papua New Guinea. The coating contained the iron mineral ferrihydride and had unusually high levels of arsenic, Pichler said.

“We are looking at the diversity and density of benthic foraminifera, animals living in the sand, at the site,” Pichler said. “We will contrast that data with an area that doesn’t have the arsenic to see what differences exist.”

Pichler said he wanted to make sure to tackle this project from different angles.

“This is a very complex system, and this is why we put this complex team of people together,” he said.

According to Pichler, the competition for this grant was tough.

“The science foundation has limited funds to award every year, and the chances of receiving funding are often less than 20 percent” he said.

Part of the grant will be used to provide scholarships for students from across the country to participate in the biocomplexity research at USF.

The grant will also be used to provide scholarships for PhD students, so can travel to the field and receive a monthly salary while participating in the research.

Pichler said the first step of the research, securing the proper permits, has already begun. In November, Pichler and his team will travel to Papua New Guinea for field research and then return to the site in May 2004.