Newtown Creek Shows Signs Of Poop-Fueled “Superfood”

Since the start of spring, bright green patches have mysteriously appeared on Newtown Creek, the moat of man-made filth separating Brooklyn and Queens.

One sample, bucketed up off the Greenpoint side shortly after the first sighting on March 22, was revealed under a microscope to be an alga studied by a major chemical corporation for its healthy fats, and close kin to another heavily marketed in Japan as a potion good for everything from hair nourishment to jet fuel.

Pace University biologist Michael Levandowsky identified the Kelley green species as a type of Eutreptiella, a saltwater cousin of freshwater Euglena gracilis, a favorite subject for high school biology teachers. Both belong to the Euglenid genus of microalgae. They’re distant, harmless cousins of the tissue-boring, blood and lymph-feeding protozoan behind Chagas disease in South America and sleeping sickness in Africa.

 

Levandowsky has spent decades on a microscopic safari of New York Harbor, but was surprised when fellow scientists at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and grassroots environmentalists spotted this species blooming prodigiously in Newtown Creek.

“I haven’t seen this before. It’s really interesting and unexpected,” Levandowsky said. Other common microorganisms in the Newtown Creek are dinoflagellates, which can result in toxic red tides but also bioluminesce; translucent nematodes (or “roundworms”); and diatoms, so renowned for their geometric beauty that mandalas have been made from them.

A euglenid bloom is a sign of fouling. In freshwater, they typically reveal the presence of phosphorus, while in saltwater, it’s nitrogen. The booming microorganism population depletes the water of oxygen, leaving dead zones. Eutrophication, or algal overgrowth, of cold water-loving Eutreptiella has pigmented coastal niches from Scandinavia to Japan. Eutreptiella have been blamed for oyster and baby flounder deaths in the Long Island Sound.

Runoff fertilizers are often the culprit, but in Newtown Creek the Eutreptiella are likely feeding off ammonia from human waste. When it rains in New York City the wastewater system is overwhelmed by the added volume of water from streets and rooftops, so raw sewage overflows into the estuary. Newtown Creek takes a disproportionate share of that damage, and its inland reaches don’t flush out with the tides.

“The only way the pollution moves out is if the next round of sewage pushes it forward,” said Captain John Lipscomb, who patrols Newtown’s waters for Riverkeeper.

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Eutreptiella from Newtown Creek under magnification (Dr. Sarah Durand, LaGuardia Community College)

 

You could say the euglenid genus itself arose unexpectedly. Roughly a billion years ago the ancestor of these single-celled organisms stole chloroplasts, “probably from something it ate,” Professor Levandowsky explained.

Because of the resulting endosymbiotic mashup, euglenids can both ingest and photosynthesize. They also move by both a flagellum (like using a whip as a propeller) and an inchworm-like motion. Early taxonomists saw them as both plant and animal, so a new Kingdom of life called Protista was created. That categorization has fallen into disuse because advances in molecular biology, microbiology, and genetics firmly place euglenids in a more complex web of life.

Lewandowsy said he plans to genetically sequence the Eutreptiella retrieved from Newtown Creek in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History, which might be a first for an organism drawn from the Superfund waterway. “The marine euglenids haven’t been studied that much,” he remarked.

Chemical industry giant DuPont, however, rummaged through Eutreptiella’s DNA for secrets to turn yeast into factories that could produce the healthy Omega-3 DHA and EPA fatty acids people usually consume in fish.

“To assemble an omega-3 biosynthetic pathway in Yarrowia, we were searching for necessary genes from microorganisms that produce omega-3 EPA and or DHA,” explained Ethel N. Jackson, a top researcher at DuPont. But she pooh-poohed the idea of farming Eutreptiella directly, saying that because of its relatively low productivity, “it will not be cost-effective.”

But if one were inclined to give Superfund locavore aquaculture a go, having poisonous slurry as a progenitor might not be an obstacle.

While not advocating for the idea, Levandowsky reasoned that “in a big, clean vat, I think after a few generations, a week or so, you’d leave [the pollution] behind. If you can grow it, you can purify it. But I don’t know that it’s better for you than just eating broccoli.”

Commercial interest in Eutreptiella’s freshwater cousins is high. In the Netherlands they’re feeding it to cows to yield more nutritious milk, while in the US and India other Euglenids might convert human and livestock wastes into fuel and fertilizer. Vanderbilt University researchers aim to produce drugs and biofuels from the algae. Biologists in Nigeria are attempting to put even their petroleum-rich nation on that biotech path.

No nation, however, has embraced the pond scum future so eagerly as Japan. Stock in Euglena Co. Ltd, a biotech firm based on algae and spun out of the University of Tokyo, continues to climb while its founder scoops up national awards. The company has begun aggressively marketing to China.

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With so much scientific and industrial fuss, it’s hard to imagine that until very recently the blooms might have gone unnoticed here.

Volunteers and students teetered at the edges of decaying bulkheads and floating docks in Brooklyn and Queens to snatch up gallons of the bright green plumes in the polluted bisque below. Levandowsky received samples from LaGuardia Community College and the Newtown Creek Alliance, which NYU’s Scienceline describes as “the eyes and ears of the Newtown Creek.”

NCA Program Manager Willis Elkins brought Levandowsky down to the water through the North Brooklyn Boat Club in Greenpoint. A more recent sample was taken by HarborLAB, an environmental science group on the Hunters Point, Long Island City bank of the creek.

A plume—no matter how vivid—can easily get lost or overlooked in the Newtown Creek. As befits the recipient of effluent from New York City’s “gorgeous mosaic,” there’s a chaotic kaleidoscope of colors to sort through. There are opalescent sheens, chemical spills, and dusts blown over from huge mounds of rusting recyclables and cement powders. Fluids gurgle out of illegally dumped containers, and trucks pour substances into the creek’s storm drains under the cover of darkness.

 

A white froth was discovered to be a bacterial bloom normally associated with copper mining. Another occasional source of odd colors are the fluorescent dyes that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection uses to locate sewer system faults. Indeed, the green plume at the HarborLAB launch appeared to be an algal bloom to scientists viewing it in photos, but it was revealed to be a DEP trace dye.

“The Newtown Creek is a very, very dynamic place. You will see things that you don’t see a few hours later,” said Captain Lipscomb. Rain carries a pretty random assortment of colorful additions to the creek, he noted. “This is no longer a watershed, it’s a sewershed and we don’t have stormwater, we have street water.”

Some cities publish color guides for common water contaminants. Creek mavens, however, feel they know its hues.

“Newtown Creek is generally a greenish blue, while its tributaries have their own particular patinas,” explained photographer Mitch Waxman, an independent blogger at Newtown Pentacle who also acts as the Newtown Creek Alliance’s official historian.

“Dutch Kills is generally antifreeze green, Maspeth Creek a blackish green, and English Kills assumes a sort of yellowish khaki.”

Andrew Juhl, an aquatic ecologist and oceanographer at Columbia University’s LaMont-Doherty Earth Observatory wrote in an email, “There are algal blooms in Newtown Creek all the time. One can take a look at our chlorophyll data from that spot and compare it to other locations and see both greater variability and much higher values than most of the lower [Hudson] River. In addition to chlorophyll, which is green, some of the algae have other pigments that make the water look tan to dark brown, red, yellowish, and so on.”

Captain Lipscomb hopes fascination (though probably not culinary) with aquatic life might encourage more New Yorkers to change their relationship with Newtown Creek. And what’s that relationship now?

“We have our foot on its neck,” he said.

 

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