Microbes in filthy Gowanus Canal may hold breakthrough vs. AIDS, heart woes
The murky waters of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal have caused the demise of a baby whale dubbed Sludgie, stunk up an entire neighborhood and even once caught on fire.
Someday, they may also save your life.
At least that’s what a pair of New York biology professors believe after doing research on the waterway considered by many to be the most polluted, putrid and repugnant place in the city.
New York City College of Technology Profs. Nasreen and Niloufar Haque say the key to combating heart disease, Alzheimer’s and even the AIDS virus may exist in a white film full of bacteria in the canal.
“One of the things we found is that it has a very potential effect as an antibiotic,” Nasreen Haque said Wednesday.
The Haque sisters began researching the Gowanus three years ago equipped with a team of elite divers willing to plumb the depths of the canal – and a hypothesis.
“If organisms can survive in such an area, they must be producing something that protects them,” Nasreen Haque said.
The divers pulled samples of the white gunk, which is a combination of bacteria, microbes and other chemicals, from under the canal bed. The Haques took the samples to a lab.
“What we suspected turned out to be true,” Nasreen Haque said. “Extracts from the microbes in the water proved to be potential sources of antibiotics or inhibitors.”
Those who live and work near the waterway said they doubt the place that often smells – and looks – like the inside of a baby’s diaper could ever produce something positive.
“I heard that years ago it used to be a dumping ground for bodies,” said Amor Villar, 62, owner of Height Woodworking, which is right next to the canal. “From dead bodies to medicinal cure? I don’t think so.”
Eda Figueroa, 50, said one word comes to mind when she walks by the canal: “Disgusting.”
“Any fish that goes in there dies of poison or if it lives, it becomes a zombie,” said Figueroa, a housewife who lives in the area. “I would not take medicine coming from there.”
The reactions don’t surprise Nasreen Haque.
For years, battles have been waged over what to do with the contaminated canal, which flows, so to speak, through the mostly industrial area between Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Park Slope.
Its toxicity is what led her there.
Haque said she and her sister found secretions from microorganisms – “some of which operate like antiobiotics” – in the white gunk.
The Haques are testing some of the agents to see if they are able to fight the type of bacteria that leads to staph infections.
Nasreen Haque hopes the substances could be used in anti-inflammatory drugs capable of battling heart disease, among other serious disorders.
Still, as much potential as she thinks the Gowanus Canal offers as an elixir, she doesn’t recommend taking a dip without protective gear.
“I wouldn’t go in after seeing what’s there,” Haque said. “I don’t think I’d ever go inside that water.”
- Designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the canal was completed in 1869.
- The waterway is about 1.8 miles long and runs from the Gowanus Bay in Sunset Park to Butler St. in Carroll Gardens.
- More than 100 years of accumulating raw sewage, toxic sludge and dumped corpses earned it the nickname “Lavender Lake.”
BY EDGAR SANDOVAL and RICH SCHAPIRO