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NYU Tandon faculty member explores life’s limits at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal

April 18, 2022 Daniel Cody
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For Elizabeth Henaff, a member of the faculty at NYU Tandon and a leading environmental scientist, “hitting bottom” is a positive, heady experience. She just might be one of the world’s greatest experts on understanding the bottom of the Gowanus Canal. 

This has huge significance for mankind’s understanding of how violations of our precious resources can be analyzed and mitigated. Whether it’s tons of plastics in oceans, or industrial sludge from another era clumped in a Brooklyn canal, many of mankind’s industrial sins find their way to the bottom–and make a record.

The Gowanus Canal, the 1.8-mile waterway surrounded by the Gowanus neighborhood, is known for its inhospitable and grotesque waters. After a century of environmental damage from coal-processing plants, tanneries, flour mills and concrete works, the ’60s era factories shut down. 

Elizabeth Henaff, computational biologist at Brooklyn’s NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Photo courtesy of NYU Tandon

In recent decades, heavy rains, stormwater, combined with an overloaded sewer system, have plagued the canal. The accumulation of “black mayonnaise,” is a toxic sludge mixture of carcinogenic PCBs, pesticides, and heavy metals like lead and mercury. In 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency declared the Gowanus Canal to be a federal Superfund site.

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While this can certainly be a deterrent for most forms of life, it does not preclude the organisms invisible to the naked eye. Elizabeth Hénaff is a computational biologist at NYU Tandon School of Engineering who has been uncovering a community of extremophiles – a type of microorganism capable of living in extreme conditions – that have the ability to break down the pernicious waste. 

The microbes at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal are the product of exposure to toxic chemicals for hundreds of years, evolving to the ability to deconstruct the substances.

Owen Foote of the Gowanus Dredgers canoes along the Gowanus Canal to the Carroll Street Bridge on March 17, 2020. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

“We’re not recreating the Big Bang in the Gowanus Canal and having life emerge from the primordial soup all over again,” Hénaff told Curbed

Although, microbes reproduce with enormous speed, the ratio of time being 20 years in 20 minutes of our perception. As Hénaff recounted to Curbed, “So in the time that we’re talking now there will have been three generations of microbes.”

While her primary background is in cancer research, she is more interested in the microbiome and microorganisms, and how they function and grow in relation to urban environments.

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