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ONU professor developing new technique to monitor phosphorus in watersheds

Jan 2, 2013

Christopher Spiese, Ohio Northern University assistant professor of chemistry, is working on the development of a new technique for measuring dissolved phosphorus in freshwaters that could introduce a new testing method that will allow for a more cost-efficient and quicker way to monitor watersheds.

Working with ONU student Joanne Berry, a junior biochemistry major from Brunswick, Ohio, Spiese reached a breakthrough in 2011 when a novel reagent (a substance that, because of the reactions it causes, is used in analysis and synthesis) formed a yellow-green fluorescent compound in the presence of phosphate.

Working together, the two have synthesized six related compounds and have screened five of them for their ability to detect phosphate. Spiese added that one of these is nearly a fully successful candidate. The findings were presented this month at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, and future efforts will focus on finishing studies of these compounds and tracking sources of both nitrogen and phosphorus in a local watershed.

“Many efforts have examined aspects leading to eutrophication (the ecosystem response to the addition of artificial or natural substances, such as nitrates and phosphates, through fertilizers or sewage, to an aquatic system) and harmful aglal bloom (HAB) formation, but one of the most important is the availability of nutrients, particularly phosphorus,” Spiese said. “Given the large number of watersheds and bodies of water facing problems related to phosphorus pollution, the cost of analysis and the relatively long analysis times associated with measuring the various forms of phosphorus can be a hurdle preventing effective ecosystem management.”

Spiese explains that the research is important because phosphorus loading is a critical issue for many of the Great Lakes watersheds. “Elevated levels of phosphorus, particularly dissolved phosphorus, can lead to eutrophication, algal blooms and, eventually, the formation of ‘dead zones’ where dissolved oxygen levels drop below what is required to support aquatic life.  Although mitigation efforts have succeeded in controlling point sources, inputs of phosphorus from non-point sources continue to be problematic throughout the area, particularly the tributary watersheds. Additional complications come from the effects of HABs, which can cause widespread impacts due to the production of toxins.”

In the spring, Spiese is looking to involve local volunteers from the Blanchard River Watershed Partnership and local high schools to conduct a one-day sampling effort across the Blanchard River watershed to collect samples for further testing using both the traditional technique and his new method.