Prof. Young’s research focuses on anaerobic microorganisms that degrade harmful organic contaminant chemicals like pesticides and benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX-compounds) from gasoline and other petroleum compounds such as naphthalene, phenanthrene and hexadecane. The microorganisms in the environment are essentially carrying out oxidation and reduction reactions, namely, oxidation of the organic contaminant coupled to the reduction of inorganic electron acceptors. The mechanism by which these bacteria (mainly denitrifiers, iron reducers, sulfidogens and methanogens, respectively) degrade the contaminants is different from aerobic bacteria because they cannot use oxygen to activate the stable hydrocarbon molecules.
In contrast to humans, these bacteria are not dependent on oxygen as an electron acceptor for cellular respiration, but use molecules like nitrate, iron, sulfate and carbonate. During her early research in the Environmental Engineering Program at Stanford University her groups was the first to prove anaerobic oxidation of eleven aromatic lignin derivatives to methane by environmental bacteria.
In 1994, Young’s publication on Degradation of toluene and m-xylene and transformation of o-xylene by denitrifying enrichment cultures. (Appl Environ Microbiol 57:450–454) was noted as one of the 10 most highly cited papers in the field of Ecology and Environmental Sciences. At Rutgers, Professor Young has expanded her work to examine the anaerobic communities from NY-NJ Harbor sediments to degrade alkanes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. A major research goal is to determine the microbial chemistry of the anaerobic pathways of naphthalene, methylnapthalene and phenanthrene. She was one of the first researchers to use stable isotope labeled compounds to decipher the mechanism of attack of hydrocarbons by anaerobes. This approach is now being widely used.
By understanding the anaerobic biodegradation pathways, Young’s group has developed methods to improve or enhance natural rates of biodegradation in the environment. This has led to the development of biochemical and biomolecular markers for assessing intrinsic biodegradation occurring in difficult to access groundwater aquifers.
In keeping with her interest in microbial processes in the environment, recent work has also focused on the ability of environmental microorganisms to oxidize or to reduce hazardous metals such as arsenic. Through their ability to change the oxidation state of the metal ions the microorganisms can affect the fate and transport of the metals in aqueous habitats such as streams and groundwater.
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