Microbes serve as markers for environmental contamination

Brooks Hays
Researchers collected groundwater samples from the Bear Creek watershed near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Photo by LBL/DOE/ORNL
Researchers collected groundwater samples from the Bear Creek watershed near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Photo by LBL/DOE/ORNL

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., May 12 (UPI) -- In research labs across the country, microbes are all the rage. Scientists have become especially interested in exploring the relationship between disease and the microbial communities in the human gut.

But what might microbes in groundwater have to say about environmental health? An international team of researchers say studying the subtle changes of microbial communities in the wild can reveal the presence of contaminants.


"Changes induced in the natural microbial community structure by contaminants lasts long after the contaminants themselves have become undetectable," research leader Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist, said in a press release. "This means the DNA of these microbial communities can be used as a forensic tool for measuring anthropogenic effects on the environment."

As part of the study, researchers collected samples of groundwater from the Bear Creek watershed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where much of the early development and testing of Manhattan Project nuclear weapons took place.

Researchers sequenced the DNA of microbial communities in the groundwater, looking for how microbes organized themselves in each sample.

"Because microbial communities continuously sense and respond to their environments, they form a ubiquitous environmental surveillance network that can be inexpensively digitized through DNA sequencing," Hazen explained. "Our idea was to determine whether and how information encoded in bacterial communities might be tapped to quantitatively characterize the environment."

The analysis was less about the specific types of microbes, and more about how communities of microbes integrate and structure themselves in response to their environment. Their efforts allowed them to produce a short of glossary of geochemical features -- features could be used to predict different types of contamination.

"Our work shows that knowing what bacteria are present allows us to infer something about the current or past chemistry of a site," said researcher Eric Alm, a microbiologist at MIT. "The next big challenge will be to understand why different bacteria are associated with different environmental conditions."

The new research was published in the journal mBio, published by the American Society for Microbiology.

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