The Gowanus Canal doesn’t kill microscopic life forms, it makes them stronger — and that could lead to medical benefits for humans.
In a new twist on that old Nietzschian parable, two sister professors at City Tech in Downtown Brooklyn say that minute organisms living in the toxic canal may have adapted to their hostile surroundings in ways that could help scientists develop life-saving heart disease and cancer treatments or even biodegradable detergents.
“[The microbes] are very adaptive, unlike us. They’ve been around for 3.5 billion years,” said Nasreen Haque, referring to the resilient creatures that now make the Gowanus their home.
Microbes exist everywhere and are already the source of many anti-inflammatory drugs, but Haque and her sister Niloufer Haque believe that the breeds in the Gowanus might lead to other applications, such as fighting cancer, because they have survived in an inhospitable setting with carcinogens.
“There are extreme conditions [so] to cope, they produce different enzymes that can have detrimental or beneficial effects on humans. We want to find the beneficial ones,” said Haque, who joined her sister to discuss their research at the school’s Jay Street campus on Monday.
So just think, one day a generation of Brooklynites could be thanking the Gowanus for beating cancer or helping to put a shine on their silverware.
That’s a far cry from last fall, when the already abysmal reputation of the Gowanus plunged even further after the Haque sisters discovered gonorrhea in the sluice.
Yes, gonorrhea — the sexually transmitted disease.
Even given the sisters’ new findings about these resilient underwater creatures, the team does not think the cleanup of the fetid waterway should be postponed.
“It’s not a good idea not to clean it up,” said Haque, who suits up and dives into the waters to get microbial samples. “It’s like looking in a haystack. It may take one day to find something, or it may take years and you’ll never find anything.”
Neighborhood activists hoping for a clean canal were happy to hear there might be a silver lining to the canal’s heinous history.
“If something good comes from it, why not?” asked Linda Mariano, a member of Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus.