Introduction to Genomics and Applications relating to the Subsurface Environment

CIM Montreal 2015
Elizabeth Edwards (University of Toronto)
Groundwater contamination as a result of resource extraction and industrial operations is a serious threat to global health and prosperity. Petroleum hydrocarbons, metals, and industrial solvents are some of the most frequent culprits. Some microbes have evolved and adapted to transform or detoxify contaminants from the environment. Case studies exploring the roles of microbes and genomics in remediation and resource extraction will be presented.

The first example will briefly examine the problem of chlorinated solvent and hydrocarbon contamination as an illustration of a highly successful application of genomic tools. Recently, a fascinating group of subsurface microorganisms, called Dehalococcoides, has been discovered that can dechlorinate common industrial solvents like trichloroethene to the benign product ethene. Remarkably, these organisms obtain energy for growth from dechlorination and several successful demonstrations of bioaugmentation, where an aquifer is inoculated with culture, have lead to the development of a commercial market for such dechlorinating cultures.

The second example will look at microbial diversity and metals, and the potential for bioleaching to control acid mine drainage and to recover metals from low grade ores. The hunt is on to further explore nature’s diversity to discover other unusual or novel microbes capable of detoxifying or transforming a broader range of chemicals of concern or carrying out other seemingly magical reactions. New molecular biology and metagenomic tools are helping us understand how these microbes make a living, and how we can take advantage of their abilities to clean up the environment, to stabilize wastes or to generate energy.
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