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Biology Student Daniel Delgado to Present Mine Research at Conference

Daniel Delgado

Biology Student Daniel Delgado to Present Mine Research at  Conference

New Mexico Highlands University biology student Daniel Delgado is the first to study bacteria in the water of a contaminated copper mine lake near Cuba, N.M.  He will present his research in May at the prestigious annual meeting for the international American Society for Microbiology.
Delgado grew up in Cuba, three and a half miles from the Nacimiento Copper Mine, which is abandoned.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the site was first mined between 1881 and the early 1900s, with the last major mining activity occurring between 1970 and 1975. Mining activities contaminated the groundwater in the Agua Zarca aquifer below the mine with heavy metals and sulfuric acid.
Groundwater cleanup started earlier this month at the Nacimiento Copper Mine site, most of which is located in the Santa Fe National Forest. Forest service officials expect the multimillion-dollar cleanup will take several years to complete.
Delgado has had a lifelong interest in the old copper mine pit lake near his home and first studied it in high school for science research projects. 
“On occasion, people swam in the copper mine lake and I wondered how hazardous the contaminated water was to humans, animals and plants,” Delgado said. “The water in the lake is beautiful but has an unnatural turquoise color.”
Delgado will graduate from Highlands University in May with a degree in biology. He is already accepted into the university’s graduate program, taking three graduate courses this semester.
Delgado’s research project is titled “Copper-Resistant Bacteria Isolated From a Contaminated Mining Site in New Mexico.” He started the project during fall semester 2008 under the supervision of biology professor Richard Plunkett, whose doctorate is in microbiology.
“Dr. Plunkett helped me focus on a specific scientific question for my research,” Delgado said. “We wanted to identify copper tolerance in different bacteria that live in the lake, meaning the highest level of copper they can tolerate and still grow.”
Delgado got permission from the Forest Service to take water samples from the copper mine pit lake. He brought the samples back to Plunkett’s laboratory at Highlands University for testing and analysis.
“We isolated 12 different bacteria in the lab and treated them with varying levels of copper, allowing us to identify copper tolerance for each bacteria,” Delgado said. “Then we conducted further experimentation to see if copper tolerance could be increased. The data suggested that there is some kind of genetic mechanism that can be induced to give the bacteria higher copper tolerance.”
Delgado’s master’s degree research will be a continuation of his initial research project. The goal is to determine if some of the copper-resistant bacteria that live and thrive in the contaminated lake pit water can be used as a biological filter to help clean up the copper pollution. This is called bioremediation.
“Bioremediation is using living systems like bacteria and plants to help clean up human pollution,” said Plunkett, who has research expertise in bioremediation.
“I think Daniel’s potential as a scientist is great because he has genuine curiosity, and that’s what separates technicians from true scientists,” Plunkett said. “He has diverse scientific interests, and is a very enthusiastic, dedicated worker.
“Daniel came to me with the idea of studying the copper mine pit lake, with a goal of contributing scientifically to its cleanup,” Plunkett said.
Delgado is also presenting a separate research project at the Research in Computational Molecular Biology Bioinformatics Education Conference in May. He is one of approximately 15 undergraduate students from across the country whose research was selected for presentation at the conference.
Delgado said this research project verified 12 genes in Drosophila erecta, the common fruit fly, using bioinformatics.
Bioinformatics is the application of information technology and computer science to the field of molecular biology. Mary Shaw, Biology Department chair, supervised Delgado’s research for this study.
After completing his master’s degree in biology, Delgado plans to pursue a career in scientific research.

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