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Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Plant Whisperers: Using Algae To Detect Water Contamination

Water is an important element that most (if not all) organisms need in order to remain in the "alive category." Unfortunately not just any water will do, as some animals (not to mention people) depend upon clean fresh water in order to survive.

While some people turn towards technology in order to help filter out their water, these scientists are using algae to alert them to whether its contaminated in the first place.

(Israel 21st Century) By analyzing the rate of photosynthesis (the process of converting sunlight into energy) of plants growing in the water, the researchers, Prof. Zvy Dubinsky and Dr. Yulia Pinchasov, can discover whether the plant realizes its full photosynthesis potential. [...]

The researchers radiate a green laser beam on the aquatic plant. A plant that hasn't realized its full photosynthesis potential will use part of the laser light, converting it into energy, with the rest being converted into heat. This heat causes the water to expand and therefore produce a change in pressure, which is actually a sound wave that can be picked up by a hydrophone - a special microphone designed for the water. [...]

A plant suffering from lead poisoning, discharged as waste into water sources from battery and paint manufacturing plants, will produce a different resonance to that of a plant suffering from lack of iron, or to that of a healthy plant.

Even though there are other scientists are using bacteria to detect the purity (or rather toxicity) of water, these algae may be able to tell scientists exactly what is polluting the water sample, allowing them to come up with solutions to counter the contaminants.

Note: Hopefully the Faculty of Life Sciences (at the Bar-Ilan Univeristy or BIU) algae research receives more attention from the international community, as it has the potential to help governments in third world countries determine what is polluting their water supplies--especially after a country is hit by an earthquate or a hurricane.

(Image Credit: Nicky at BIU, via Israel 21st Century)

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