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University of Iowa

Superfund Research Program

Elucidating mechanisms for enhanced anaerobic bioremediation in the presence of carbonaceous materials using an integrated material science and molecular microbial ecology approach

Project Leader: Timothy E. Mattes
Co-Investigator: Wenqing Xu (Villanova University)
Grant Number: R01ES032671
Funding Period: 2021-2025
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Halogenated compounds, including legacy pollutants like chlorinated ethenes (CEs), polychlorinated biphenyls) and emerging contaminants (e.g., 1,2,3-trichloropropane), are frequently found at Superfund sites. A common bioremediation strategy for halogenated pollutants in groundwater and sediments is anaerobic reductive dehalogenation by organohalide-respiring bacteria (OHRB). Although effective, OHRB-driven bioremediation strategies are often incomplete in field applications.

An emerging remediation strategy involving amendment of pyrogenic carbonaceous matter (PCM), activated carbon, to the subsurface offers a potential solution to problems with OHRB-driven bioremediation. Recent research highlights the potential for PCM to promote synergistic interactions among OHRB and the auxiliary microbial community and subsequently improve OHRB-driven bioremediation efficacy. However, the underlying mechanisms of how PCM properties best support microbial network interactions, and thereby enhance OHRB performance and contaminant biodegradation, remain unknown. These unknowns limit the ability to optimize OHRB performance in bioremediation strategies where PCM is used.

In this project, the researchers aim to close the knowledge gap concerning specific surface effects of PCM on the performance of pollutant-degrading microorganisms, especially OHRB. The central hypothesis is that key PCM properties will shape microbial community structure and drive the expression of metabolic functions associated with reductive dehalogenation processes. Elucidating positive impacts between PCM and OHRB will allow for the development of tailored PCM that foster synergistic microbial network interactions and facilitate more effective and sustainable bioremediation. The hypothesis is based on preliminary data showing that OHRB-driven CE biotransformation performance was improved in the presence of biochar, OHRB were attached to carbon surfaces, and that PCM-like tunable polymer networks can be successfully synthesized.

Based on their preliminary data, the researchers will test the hypothesis by:


  • Providing a tunable platform for synthesis of PCM-like polymer membranes where surface charge and redox- active properties are varied individually.
  • Quantifying the effects of PCM surface properties on microbial net- work interactions and subsequent performance of an organohalide-respiring mixed culture.
  • Developing tailored PCM for enhanced anaerobic bioremediation and contaminant mixture retention and validating material performance in microcosms.


The proposed research is innovative because the group will use a tunable platform to change material surface properties and employ advanced molecular microbial ecology tools to assess the impacts of these properties on microbial community structure, function, and activity including OHRB. Outcomes of this project will benefit public health and realize economic benefits by reducing human exposure to halogenated pollutants in the environment and demonstrating the potential for more effective and sustainable remediation approaches that combine tailored PCM and OHRB.

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