UBC projects tap microbial genomics to boost sustainable bioenergy

Two new Genome BC-funded projects led by UBC researchers will harness microbial community research to help tackle sustainable development challenges in biofuel and BC shale gas development.

The initiatives, led by UBC microbiologist Steven Hallam in collaboration with researchers Sean Crowe and Uli Mayer, will receive $830,000 in funding through Genome BC's User Partnership Program. The work could inform a range of issues faced by industry—including environmental monitoring, water management and site risk mitigation.

"From a microbial ecology perspective, every time a well is drilled or biofuels released into the subsurface, a growth experiment is initiated," says Hallam, an associate professor in UBC's Department of Microbiology and Immunology and a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Genomics.

"Our ability to interpret these experiments and harness the results requires detailed understanding of the environmental conditions before, during and after perturbation. Working closely with forward thinking industrial partners we are poised to bring microbial ecology and genome sciences to the energy sector in ways that promote more efficient resource recovery with reduced environmental costs."

On the biofuel front, the UBC team will investigate consequences of biofuel releases across different ecological scales, from laboratory cultures to subsurface microbial ecosystems. The research will open a genomic window on the environmental consequences of blended biofuel releases, enabling industry to make more effective site management decisions and develop risk mitigation strategies based on ecological design principles.

Hallam and Mayer have established collaborative partnerships with Shell, the American Petroleum Institute and several regulators, including the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, Science Advisory Board for Contaminated Sites in British Columbia, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Hallam and Crowe will investigate microbial community structure and function in hydraulic fracturing fluids associated with BC shale gas reservoirs. Working closely with industrial partners to develop effective sample collection protocols the UBC team will apply genomic technologies to chart microbial community structure and function in hydraulic fracturing fluids at different stages of shale gas development. This research will provide a genetic blueprint for engineering biotechnology solutions identified by the industrial and regulatory partners including issues related to shale gas production, monitoring and water management.

"Genomics based research lead by Dr Hallam and his research team could allow us to better understand the role microbial communities play in long-term gas production and provide more precise monitoring opportunities,” says James O'Hanley, Deputy Commissioner, Resource Stewardship and Major Projects at the Oil And Gas Commission. “This would help us fulfill our regulatory mandate to the benefit all British Columbians."

"These projects are of huge importance to British Columbians," says Dr Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. "Bioenergy is an integral part of our future and genomic tools offer an opportunity to keep safety paramount while maximizing yield."

Chris Balma
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