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Gowanus Canal May Hold Clues to Development of New Antibotics
City Tech Professors Nasreen Haque (center) and Niloufar Haque (right) with student Fejzije Bala, a chemical technology major planning to attend medical school.
Photo credit: Michele Forsten
New York City College of Technology Biology Professors Nasreen and Niloufar Haque have announced preliminary findings of their research on the "white stuff" in Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal.
“What we suspected turned out to be true,” Nasreen confirmed. “The extracts from the microbes in the water proved to be potential sources of antibiotics or inhibitors.” Clearly, this discovery has a possible significant positive impact on human health as well as on the health of ecological systems.
For the past two years, the Haques’ biodiversity project, in which City Tech and other students have participated, has taken them as far away as the Red Sea in the Middle East and as nearby as the Gowanus Canal, researching microbes in these waters and their effect on humans. Yet perhaps the most unusual -- or, at least, most intriguing -- findings under their microscopes came from the Gowanus’ biofilm, a composite of bacteria, protozoans, chemicals and other debris.
“Despite the canal’s toxicity, which includes cancer-causing chemical agents,” explained Nasreen, "microorganisms are surviving by adapting to the harsh environment there that shouldn’t survive at all. Working in synergy, they seem to sense if nutrients are available; they exchange genes and secrete substances -- some of which operate like antibiotics. I believe these substances may provide clues that lead to the development of new drugs to combat human disease.”
The Haques lab-culture the microorganisms on campus to extract their secretions. Next, scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine conduct protein sequencing to identify the extracts' exact chemical composition. DNA sequencing to identify the microorganisms is then done in the Department of Genomics at The American Museum of Natural History. “This,” Nasreen added, “is part of the process of hopefully discovering why some of the microorganisms are bacteria-resistant."
Nasreen’s research career focuses on cardiovascular disease and involves cultivation of bacteria that may have medicinal value, especially those that might have an anti-inflammatory effect. Previously, her research as a faculty member at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine led to the discovery of a new role for a gene in the chemokine family of proteins, one of which regulates migration of cells in arteries, thus illuminating how heart disease and cancer develop. This work may help evolve new medicines to aid dysfunctional arteries or fight cancer.
Niloufar researches neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's, and hopes to discover new drugs as a result of her and her sister’s Gowanus work. In India, she is conducting stem cell research to determine possible applications in the treatment of dementia.
“Bodies of water worldwide are the new frontier in the search for microbes and microbial processes from which new antibiotics might be developed,” said Nasreen. “The Gowanus Canal is of particular interest to us precisely because it is home to many bacteria-resistant organisms The work is especially challenging because the breakthrough we are hoping for from our Gowanus research is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
In the next phase of their research, the Haques will examine specific antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or “staph,” to see if any of the Gowanus microbial extracts can inhibit those organisms. They are testing these extracts in collaboration with the Institute of Basic Research on Staten Island, to profile their effect on human brain-derived cells. City Tech and other students will again assist with this research.
When asked about the potential health risks involving some of the secretions found in the Gowanus, Nasreen replied that she certainly wouldn’t advise swimming in the canal. “Under normal circumstances,” she added, “the bio-organisms in the canal probably pose minimal danger to people living nearby. But young children whose immune systems have not yet fully developed and older people whose systems tend to diminish with age might be at higher risk. And individuals with severely compromised immune systems would be at an even greater risk. Of course, were the Gowanus to overflow and flood the surrounding grounds and basements of homes that flank the canal, that might be a different story.”
Nasreen has lobbied for and would like to see studies undertaken to profile the occurrence of infectious disease among people of all ages living in close proximity to the Gowanus. “Are such diseases more frequent,” she asked, “among this population than among people who live farther away from the canal?”
She doesn’t believe that the community should wait, however, for the results of such studies to detoxify and otherwise clean up the Gowanus Canal. “It’s smelly and potentially hazardous to some people’s health,” she added,“ and anything but a pretty sight.”
Of the two Haques, Nasreen is the one who collects the samples--fully protected in professional diving gear--working with Urban Divers, a local organization. This part of her work came naturally. “I love biology, and I love the water, the ocean. I was into diving,” she explained. She first became involved with marine research in 1989 as a faculty member at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa, India, on an expedition to India’s Laccadive Islands, looking for biodiversity in fish.
While Niloufar, 51, is 4 ½ years older than Nasreen, the two, who live with family in Staten Island’s Willowbrook section, do not have a big sister/little sister dynamic. “We finish each other's sentences,” Niloufar said. “I think with the brain and Nasreen thinks with the heart, but at times we switch. We complement each other well.”