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University of California-Berkeley

Superfund Research Program

Microbial Communities that Bioremediate Chemical Mixtures

Project Leader: Lisa Alvarez-Cohen
Co-Investigator: Jillian F. Banfield
Grant Number: P42ES004705
Funding Period: 2017-2022
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Project Summary (2017-2022)

The inorganic metalloid arsenic, organic chlorinated solvents (e. g. trichloroethene (TCE)) and aromatic hydrocarbons (e. g. benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX)) are frequently detected as a mixture of contaminants in groundwater aquifers. Their presence in drinking water supplies represents a hazard to public health and the environment. Currently, arsenic ranks No.1 on the ATSDR Priority List of Hazardous Substances and has been reported as a problem at 917 Superfund National Priorities List sites. Due to its common co-occurrence with TCE and BTEX at these sites, it is important to understand the effects of potential remediation strategies that target only one contaminant class on the fate and transport of the other contaminants.

This project is applying systems biology approaches to study interactions within microbial communities involved in the bioremediation of groundwater mixtures containing arsenic species in combination with TCE and BTEX. The investigators are enriching and studying microbial communities that can concurrently reduce the bioavailability of arsenic and degrade the co-contaminants and specifically addressing complex problems arising from the presence of chemical mixtures at hazardous waste sites.

Bioremediation processes that biostimulate fermenting microorganisms by injection of organics into groundwater aquifers to promote the dechlorination of TCE are likely to generate soluble arsenic species, leading to the production of new and more significant groundwater (GW) contaminants. Similarly, BTEX releases into aquifers result in the rapid depletion of oxygen and other electron acceptors, leading to arsenic mobilization. A key challenge in achieving effective bioremediation without mobilizing arsenic is understanding the multi-scale complexity of subsurface microbial communities that could facilitate useful transformations of arsenic, while also targeting the degradation of organic co-contaminants. The investigators hypothesize that understanding the structure, function and syntrophic interactions of microbial communities involved in arsenic transformations can lead to optimized simultaneous bioremediation of the metalloid arsenic as well as chlorinated solvents and aromatic hydrocarbons. To test this hypothesis, the research team is enriching and constructing cultures from contaminated GW and sediments that are capable of arsenic cycling as well as co-contaminant transformations and apply meta-omics based approaches to characterize interactions within these communities. They are further evaluating the responses of these enrichments and consortia to perturbations and various co-contaminant exposures. The investigators are also developing models to provide predictive input to new designs for effective bioremediation of these mixtures. The knowledge and models developed from this research will be valuable to provide guidance to practitioners of bioremediation to improve operation and practice in the common occurrence of co-located mixtures of arsenic, solvents and aromatics.

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