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BILLINGS – What does the human microbiome have in common with the 2,000-acre Hailstone National Wildlife Refuge on the prairie northwest of Billings?

The same techniques Montana State University microbiologist Amaya Garcia Costas is using to study the refuge’s toxic soils are also being used to map the organisms that live on and in humans.

“I feel like they’ve stolen our research,” she said and laughed. “The human microbiome gets a lot more pizzazz.”

Garcia Costas is one of the most recent scientists to attack what has been a long-standing problem at Hailstone, located in Stillwater County about 3.5 miles northeast of Rapelje. Salt and minerals deposited more than 66 million years ago are buried under the soils of the Hailstone Basin, remnants of a time when a vast, salty inland sea covered much of Montana.

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Since the 1930s, when a dam was built in the basin to back up more water for what had been a natural seasonal wetland, those salts and minerals built up until reaching dangerous levels. Between 3,000 and 65,000 tons of salt entered the reservoir through surface water alone each year and was concentrated as the water evaporated, studies showed.

The salt and other minerals were also flowing downstream to Halfbreed Lake National Wildlife Refuge, posing a threat there.

"We started realizing the issues out there in the late '90s," said Karen Nelson, a toxicologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. "The water quality was so bad it was causing waterfowl to become encrusted in salt."

So over two years – from 2010 to 2011 – the reservoir was drained and the dam removed. Then the basin's white soils were plowed and seeded with native salt-tolerant grasses. The work has changed a one-time waterfowl wetland into an upland area.

"It's amazing the difference," said Doug Powell, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "I think the reclamation has far exceeded my expectations."

When he first visited the refuge, Powell said it looked and smelled like a large sewer pond with its bubbling water.

"Now it's already in the process of recovering on its own," he said.

Garcia Costas is looking into how it might be possible to reduce the amount of selenium built up in the basin’s soil by using already present organisms. Her project started this fall with a survey of what is living in the dirt. To find out, she uses the same techniques researchers are utilizing to study the human microbiome.

“We go to the soil and extract all of the genes and sequence them to ask who is there,” she said. “In a quick sweep, we can find out what organisms are there and in what abundance.”

Ultimately, the goal would be to find an organism that could be placed on an object, such as a biofilm, to collect and remove the selenium as it flows through seasonal streams, reducing the amount of the mineral in the basin.

“In the lab we have several organisms that can take selenate and dump electrons in it and convert it to selenium,” Garcia Costas said. “If we can get selenium into a solid, it’s not flowing with the water and we can develop a system to take it out.”

Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral in the soil. It can also be found in small doses in multivitamins, since selenium is essential to metabolism. But like anything, too much of a good thing can be bad – even toxic.

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Prior to the draining of the 559-acre wetland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 100 birds a year were dying from the salty waters. The selenium present was found to cause “complete reproductive failure” in some shorebirds and waterfowl.

"I think there's enough salt and selenium in there to keep these seeps going for over a century," Nelson said. "So it's not a problem that's going to be fixed any time soon."

Until the dam was breached and new plants were seeded, Garcia Costas said it seemed like “at every point (humans) have done things to make a natural situation worse.” Now those errors are being reversed and she hopes to be a part of the solution, not only to the problems at Hailstone but in other areas of Montana and states like California.

“The selenium problem is really widespread throughout the West,” Garcia Costas said.

The West has become Garcia Costas’ adoptive home since first coming to Reed Point as a high school exchange student from Spain. Twenty-four years later, she’s made her home in Billings while raising two children with her husband and now commutes to Bozeman every week for her postdoctoral research. Her study of the soil organisms at Hailstone is just one of several other projects she finds herself immersed in at the Bozeman laboratory of John Peters. The studies draw upon biochemistry to analyze the role microbes can play in everything from agriculture to renewable energy, according to an MSU press release.

Garcia Costas finds the work exciting, challenging and gratifying.

“I’m just trying to bring my set of skills to this problem,” she said.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to be growing lettuce in Hailstone, that’s not realistic. But we can at least try to mitigate and not exacerbate the situation.”

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