How can we imagine partnerships with unusual organisms for collaborative survival on our changing planet? The environment of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is emblematic of the many post-industrial Superfund sites across the country. Like Gowanus, these were once important sites for production and manufacturing industries that have now moved elsewhere, leaving a material, economic, and social legacy of toxicity. Research by Dr. Henaff et al, using metagenomic sequencing shows that the toxic sediment of the canal harbors communities of microorganisms actively degrading the toxic compounds in this seemingly uninhabitable industrial environment.
The story told by this genetic research is one of collaborative survival in altered nature. The metabolic pathways of present-day Gowanus microbiome hold a molecular echo of the history of human intervention at this site. Humans altered the Canal environment through engineering, and the emergent microbiome is, slowly, altering it through adaptation and metabolism. Here we explore the multiple facets of the complex relationship we have with contaminated waterways: its impact on the environment, on human health and well-being, the sense of place, the politics of pollution and gentrification and the translation of scale necessary to comprehend microscopic ecologies.