Biology gets grant for beach water sampling

It may seem as though beach closings at Presque Isle State Park were more prevalent than sunny days last summer, but, according to Dr. Steven Mauro, assistant professor of biology at Mercyhurst College, that doesn’t necessarily translate to increased contamination of local waters.

To really answer the question of just how polluted our beach waters are will require testing the waters 3-4 days a week over the course of an entire summer. Thanks to $57,000 in funding awarded to Mercyhurst in October by the Coastal Zone Management Program, Mauro and his students will attempt to establish molecular methods that will make such a study possible. 

“Our job will be to develop protocols that will reduce bacterial sampling time to allow us to more efficiently monitor the abundance and distribution of bacteria in Presque Isle beach waters,” Mauro said. “Ultimately, we hope that our research will contribute to aquatic pathogenic organism identification in a manner that will protect the public from exposure to unsafe waters.”

Last summer, the beach water at Presque Isle was tested twice a week with results available in 24 hours. “We’d like to turn it around in two hours,” said Mauro, whose team has already begun preliminary data gathering. Students participating in the project are Cody Smith, Jayme Dylewski, Jessica Watson, Denise Thompson, Theresa Mullan and Tim Wagner. Erin Lenz, a 2006 graduate, also assisted with the preliminary work and is using the research skills she gained at Mercyhurst in her graduate studies at Michigan State University.

Using state-of-the-art technology in the Donald and Judith Alstadt Laboratory for Molecular and Cellular Research on Mercyhurst’s Erie campus and facilities at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle, Mauro’s team will analyze the DNA of bacterial samples from Lake Erie. Using a real-time PCR machine, the students will be able to take one piece of DNA from a bacterium and magnify it millions of times to identify it. Previously, the science involved analyzing the entire bacterium, which had to be grown in the lab, necessitating the 24-hour turnaround.

Mauro said Mercyhurst has received two Coastal Zone grants to fund the project: $39,000 through the Ridge Center and $18,000 through the Erie County Department of Health.

“This is a great opportunity for our students and will pay dividends as they pursue graduate school and go on to health-related careers,” Mauro said. “It’s also an example of a valuable college-community partnership.”

The new project, centered on identifying “bacteria,” comes on the heels of one last summer in which Mauro’s students gathered beach water samples to identify “viruses,” which was funded with $18,000 in federal grant money. The students have been processing the data and are nearing completion of a report that will be delivered to the Erie County Health Department.

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