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Resident Bacteria May Help Clean Phosphorous From Lakes

In recent years, Madison residents have focused new attention on water-quality problems ranging from beach closings to unsightly, odoriferous blue-green algae blooms caused by an overload of phosphorus within area lakes.

In reality, those problems began in the city more than a century ago. They originated in an era when 'wastewater treatment' meant dumping largely untreated sewage back into the lakes, says Katherine McMahon, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. 'Phosphorus is something that, once it gets into the lakes, it's very hard to get out,' she says.

She will use her expertise in wastewater engineering and in biological systems to study the bacterial community in different eutrophied lakes-two in Madison and one in China-to learn more about how those bacteria affect phosphorus cycling in the lakes.

In eutrophied lakes, or those contaminated with excess nutrients, phosphorus generally is trapped in the sediments at the bottom. In spring, the lake 'turns over' and the phosphorus becomes a major ingredient in that giant, oxygen-rich mixing bowl. It's a recipe for an algae bloom.

In summer, cooler water far below the lake surface traps phosphorus on the lake bottom, where McMahon's previous research suggests that bacterial communities release it in a biological process similar to that which is responsible for enhanced biological phosphorus removal, or EBPR, a method often used during wastewater treatment.

In fact, McMahon will use new tools in molecular biology and recent research advances that apply to EBPR processes to help her develop hypotheses about how phosphorus is released into the water column by bacteria during the summer, and taken up during the spring and fall.

Traditionally, limnologists who study lake phosphorus group bacteria into a single 'black box,' says McMahon. Conversely, she seeks to identify specific
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