GotScience: Copying coral to contain heavy metal pollution

Check out my new post at GotScience.org about mimicking coral to remove heavy metals from the ocean!  A brief exercept below:

Photo of coral (Courtesy of Public.Resource.Org via Flickr)

Coral’s characteristically colorful tentacles, while attracting tourists and SCUBA divers with their unique beauty, are both the animal’s greatest strength and weakness. Although these structures have evolved to efficiently absorb nutrients from the water, they also let in toxic heavy metals like mercury, lead, or cadmium, which industrial manufacturers are pouring into the oceans in increasing quantities.

However, scientists may have found a way to reduce heavy metal concentrations in oceans and prevent coral and other animals (including humans) from absorbing harmful levels of the toxins. Researchers led by Dr. Xianbao Wang at the Anhui Jianzhu University in China have developed a material made of aluminum and oxygen that naturally grows in a shape similar to the complex coral structures. This artificial coral easily absorbs heavy metals in water and its growth process is simple enough to allow for large-scale manufacturing.

Taking Up Our Waste

Many sea animals absorb heavy metal waste that comes from the treatment of wood and the manufacturing of circuit boards, pigments, and petroleum.  These toxins can be potentially dangerous to most species when concentrations are too high, but corals have a structure that makes them especially susceptible. Though their tentacles may appear to be simple strands waving in the water, zooming in to the microscopic level reveals a complex, two-tiered structure. Larger patterns, microns in diameter (about the width of a human hair), are broken up into folds and wrinkles that are only nanometers wide (the width of a single DNA molecule). Evolution’s endless refinement has created this hierarchical structure that maximizes the coral’s surface area, increasing the number of possible sites to trap nutrients flowing along the ocean currents.

Unfortunately, such an effective mechanism for trapping nutrients also has a habit of catching unwanted elements. Heavy metals are particularly attracted to the chemical groups that occur on a coral’s surface.  Thus, as industries dump more and more heavy metals into the ocean, coral reefs are one of the first ecosystems to suffer, with downstream effects that lead to high concentrations of metals in fish and our food supply.

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Read the rest here!

References

Wang, X et al. “Self-curled coral-like ɣ-Al2O3 nanoplates for use as an adsorbent.” Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, 453:244-251, 2015.

Barakat, MA. “New trends in removing heavy metals from industrial wastewater.” Arabian Journal of Chemistry, 4(4):361-377, 2011.

Ahmad, M. et al. “Eggshell and coral wastes as low cost sorbents for the removal of Pb, Cd, and Cu from aqueous solutions.” Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 18(1): 198-2014, 2012.

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