Skip to Main ContentSearch Site
Top

Research could unearth environmental breakthrough for CCRI biology professor

Davila JackleySept. 5, 2019

The fate of Dr. Bruno Soffientino’s summer-long experiment sits in a row of tightly-sealed jars stuffed with contaminated marine sediment samples in the chemistry lab of Dr. Rainer Lohmann at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus.

Soffientino, an Associate Professor in Biology for the past seven years at the Community College of Rhode Island, and a Wakefield, RI, resident, hopes the results unearth a better understanding of how certain pollutants can be broken down by naturally-occurring bacteria, possibly leading to a more effective way to get rid of them faster.

With funding from the Rhode Island IDeA Network for Excellence in Biomedical Research (RI-INBRE), Soffientino spent this past summer carrying out a laboratory experiment to further study the breakdown of dangerous substances known as Medium-Chain Chlorinated Paraffins (MCCPs).

The work involves chemistry and biology components: Simon Vojta, a postdoctoral researcher in the Lohmann lab, measured concentrations of MCCPs in the bottled sediments, while Soffientino monitored the numbers of bacteria potentially capable of breaking down MCCPs.

The sediments come from various contaminated and non-contaminated areas in New Jersey and Staten Island, including sites within earshot of the Newark International Airport and Passaic River. Samples are divided into separate jars, each containing different levels of MCCPs, and Soffientino then introduces substances, such as cellulose and chitin, that fuel the growth of microbes – tiny, microscopic life forms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, some of which are used in the breakdown of plastics or to clean up oil spills.

 “Over time, we’ll take some jars and open them, measure MCCP concentration, and extract the DNA so we can analyze the abundance of microbes and come up with an understanding of the process,” Soffientino said. “‘Are some treatments breaking down MCCPs faster than others?  If so, are there more microbes?  And do cellulose or chitin make a difference?’ There is a lot of waiting involved, but while you’re waiting, you’re processing previous samples.”

Soffientino’s study will take at least a year as he checks in every three months to see just how quickly – if at all – the chemicals are breaking down with the help of microorganisms found naturally in the sediment, a process known as bioremediation. There’s an added element in the classroom, too, as he plans to implement details of his research in his teachings this fall, specifically to students interested in studying DNA sequencing. Likewise, he’ll offer those looking to get involved in a research project the opportunity to work with him in the lab as the experiment continues.

The ultimate goal is to find an organic solution to breaking down dangerous chemicals that is both cost-effective and safe for the environment. If successful, Soffientino’s research could help in the development of a bioremediation technique to decontaminate toxic sites affected by these and other chlorinated chemicals. That, for now, is a longshot – the focus today is first figuring out what happens to MCCPs once they get in the sediment.

“I’m looking specifically at the MCCPs because they are poorly studied,” Soffientino said. “Hardly anything is known about whether or not – and which – microbes might be breaking them down.

“There are a lot of people interested in how microbes break down chlorinated chemicals, and a lot of money is invested everywhere to see if we can implement techniques to stimulate microbes to do the clean-up naturally.”

Because of their versatility – among their most attractive qualities, they are unreactive, non-flammable, stain and chemical resistant, and flexible at low temperatures – MCCPs have become the compound of choice by companies that manufacture everyday products. They are used as plasticizers in garden hoses, which need to maintain elasticity in cold temperatures, and in paints, sealants and coatings, all of which need to be resistant to both water and chemicals while remaining pliable. They are also used as coolants or lubricants in metal cutting and other high-temperature applications, or as flame-retardant plasticizers in rubbers and fabrics.

But the same qualities that make MCCPs useful in the manufacturing industry also make them difficult to decompose in the environment. These chemicals, Soffientino says, were popularized more than 30 years ago as replacements for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which were banned in the United States in 1979 after studies by the Environmental Protection Agency discovered they caused cancer in addition to adverse skin, liver and developmental effects in humans. 

MCCPs, while not quite as deadly as PCBs, are still troublesome. When discharged into bodies of water, they seep into soil and aquatic sediments, and are known to have toxic effects on animals, plants and humans. Researchers in Europe have expressed concern over the possibility of metalworking fluids containing MCCPs resulting in an increased risk of kidney toxicity in humans. 

There are other ways to decontaminate polluted sediment, such as dredging, which involves scooping debris and sediment from the bottom of lakes and rivers, but that can actually be counterproductive, Soffientino says, because the sediment can spread and wind up contaminating an even larger portion of the area.

The perfect solution is a natural one that does not harm the environment and helps reverse decades of damage done by the commercial use of toxic MCCPs during a time in which their effects were largely unexplored. Soffientino’s research could prove groundbreaking. The answer is in those jars.

“There is urgency for understanding where these MCCPs go,” Soffientino said, “and how they break down.”


Share this story

Latest News

Employee Spotlight: Maya Geraldo

Employee Spotlight: Maya Geraldo

June 19, 2024

With a nomination from Interim President Rosemary Costigan, Maya was recently honored as one of Providence Business News’ 40 Under Forty for 2024, an annual awards program that recognizes young leaders based on their career success and involvement within their communities.  

Read More

Spring 2024 Dean's List

Spring 2024 Dean's List

June 03, 2024

Students enrolled in a degree program who have completed 12 credits with a grade point average of 3.25 or higher this semester with no grade lower than “C” are eligible for this scholastic honor.

Read More

CCRI among Rhode Island schools supported by Ørsted's proposed $5.5M Starboard Wind project

CCRI among Rhode Island schools supported by Ørsted's proposed $5.5M Starboard Wind project

May 31, 2024

Rhode Island’s offshore wind leader Ørsted announced higher education grant commitments totaling $5.5 million as part of its proposed Starboard Wind project, including a proposed $2 million to the Community College of Rhode Island.

Read More

CCRI launches its first Cannabis Training Program to meet workforce demands in fast-growing industry

CCRI launches its first Cannabis Training Program to meet workforce demands in fast-growing industry

May 29, 2024

With jobs in the cannabis industry nearly doubling in Rhode Island between 2022 and 2023, the Community College of Rhode Island is launching its eight-week Cannabis Training Program through the Division of Workforce Partnerships.

Read More

Torsiello's 'beautiful life' leads her to the commencement stage as CCRI's 2024 student speaker

Torsiello's 'beautiful life' leads her to the commencement stage as CCRI's 2024 student speaker

May 15, 2024

Meet Marissa Torsiello, a 30-year-old West Hartford, CT, native and Providence, RI, resident, who will deliver this year's address to the Class of 2024 following a near-decade long journey through healthcare providers and hospitals while battling a rare genetic disorder that left her unable to pursue her college education.

Read More

CCRI Foundation and Alumni Association elects two new members to its Board of Trustees

CCRI Foundation and Alumni Association elects two new members to its Board of Trustees

April 26, 2024

The CCRI Foundation and Alumni Association have elected Sergio Sousa, Regional Vice President of Marketing for Ballys Twin River Lincoln Casino Resort and Ballys Tiverton Casino & Hotel to the Alumni Association Assembly, and Rhode Island attorney, Rebecca E. Dupras, Esq., of Dupras Law, to the Board of Trustees.

Read More

CCRI Players close out the semester with production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

CCRI Players close out the semester with production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

April 24, 2024

Written in 1967 by Clark Gesner, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is a musical based on the characters created by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz in his comic strip Peanuts – a perfect opportunity for the Players to end the year on a light-hearted note following a stretch of heavy, thought-provoking performances dating back to 2021.

Read More

Broadway tour members visit Providence Campus next week to discuss life on the road

Broadway tour members visit Providence Campus next week to discuss life on the road

April 17, 2024

Students interested in a career in performing arts will have a unique opportunity next week to learn about life on the road from two well-traveled industry experts, Jay Carey and Christopher DeAngelis from the Broadway musical Company, during a free Q&A session at CCRI’s Providence Campus Theatre on Wednesday, April 24 at 4 pm.

Read More

First cohort of trainees graduates CCRI's GWO-certified Basic Safety Training program

First cohort of trainees graduates CCRI's GWO-certified Basic Safety Training program

April 11, 2024

Thirty-nine local residents are the first to complete the Global Wind Organisation (GWO)-certified Basic Safety Training curriculum at the state’s only offshore wind safety training center and are prepared to continue building fulfilling careers in America’s fast-growing offshore wind sector.

Read More

Class of 2022 grad Tavares gains acceptance into prestigious Juilliard School to pursue acting

Class of 2022 grad Tavares gains acceptance into prestigious Juilliard School to pursue acting

April 01, 2024

Less than a year after wrapping up a life-changing fellowship with The Gamm Theatre, 22-year-old Pawtucket, RI, native and Class of 2022 graduate Eddy Tavares is one of only a small percentage of applications who were accepted into Juilliard's four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program in Drama beginning in the Fall of 2024.

Read More

Unwilling to give up her dream, New Century Scholar Grace pursues a career in Archaeology

Unwilling to give up her dream, New Century Scholar Grace pursues a career in Archaeology

March 28, 2024

After an on-again, off-again journey to further her education, West Warwick, RI, native Kelly Grace earned the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society's 2024 New Century Transfer Scholarship for the state of Rhode Island, awarding her $2,250 toward her pursuit of a career in Archaeology.

Read More

CCRI earns Military Friendly® School designation for the third year in a row

CCRI earns Military Friendly® School designation for the third year in a row

March 27, 2024

The Community College of Rhode Island has been named a 2024–25 Military Friendly® School by VIQTORY, a data-driven military company that helps connect the military community to civilian employment.

Read More

Insurance training grad makes investment in herself to break into a satisfying new career

Insurance training grad makes investment in herself to break into a satisfying new career

March 26, 2024

Dorchester, MA, native and current Johnston, RI, resident Shamika Lyte initially worked in the construction industry fresh out of high school, but, thanks to CCRI's free Property and Casualty Insurance certification program, has found new life in a career that keeps her on her toes.

Read More

Social Sciences professor McCormack continues work to teach year-round inclusivity at CCRI

Social Sciences professor McCormack continues work to teach year-round inclusivity at CCRI

March 20, 2024

While February is known for the celebration of Black History Month and June is synonymous with Pride Month, among others, Suzanne McCormack works every day to ensure her students understand the importance of inclusivity and diversity while integrating such topics into her teachings throughout the year.

Read More

Budding artist and Promise scholar uses newfound ability to earn South Coast grant

Budding artist and Promise scholar uses newfound ability to earn South Coast grant

March 19, 2024

Jonathan Colombo, a second-year Rhode Island Promise scholar and Fine Arts major with a concentration in Art, was recently named the South Coast Artists' 2024 Youth Grant Award of Merit recipient – one of several grants awarded annually to motivated high school and college students under the age of 21 to explore their artistic potential beyond the everyday classroom setting.

Read More

Upcoming Events

Mar.
18

Global Wind Organization - Basic Safety Training - Ongoing

March 18, 2024 All Day

Flanagan Campus

Mar.
23

Motorcycle Rider Education - Ongoing

March 23, 2024 All Day

May.
20

Securities Industry Essentials (SIE)

May 20, 2024 All Day

Jun.
24

Finals week for Session I classes

June 24, 2024 All Day

Jun.
25

CCRI Enrollment Days

June 25, 2024 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Flanagan Campus

Jun.
25

CCRI Pasta & FAFSA Completion Workshops

June 25, 2024 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Newport County Campus

Jun.
27

CCRI Enrollment Days

June 27, 2024 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Knight Campus

Jun.
28

Bi-weekly Leave Reports due by Midnight

June 28, 2024 All Day