How do microbes help clean up oil spills?

Genome Canada funds a collaborative research project to study the potential for bioremediation.

Drew Scherban, University Relations
December 8, 2016

A collaborative research project that partners the University of Calgary and the University of Manitoba has been awarded $10.7 million as part of the Genome Canada 2015 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition (LSARP).

Announced today in Montreal by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, the project — titled GENICE — will combine  expertise in the areas of genomics, microbiology, petroleomics, and sea-ice physics to investigate the potential for natural microbial communities to mitigate oil spills, as warmer temperatures and melting sea ice usher in increasing shipping throughout Arctic waters. The research teams will be led by the University of Calgary’s Casey Hubert, associate professor in the Faculty of Science and Campus Alberta Innovation Program Chair in Geomicrobiology, and University of Manitoba’s professor Gary Stern, Centre for Earth Observation Science.

Toward a better understanding of bioremediation in the Arctic

“Bioremediation in the cold Arctic and in the presence of sea ice remains poorly understood,” Hubert says. “By developing a better understanding of how Arctic microbes will be mobilized in the event of a spill, we can better model and map what will happen and what our response should be, should an accidental spill ever occur,” notes Hubert.

With northern shipping increasing by 166 per cent since 2004, and cruise ships and tourism increasing by 500 per cent in the past five years, the pressures on the Northwest Passage have never been greater. The passage represents a sea route connecting the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which has never been busier. 

“The expertise that Manitoba brings to the table are in the areas of petroleomics and sea ice physics as well as our new facility (under construction in Churchill, Manitoba) that will allow us to study oil degradation processes under controlled Arctic conditions,” says Stern.

Connection to new Churchill Marine Observatory

The soon-to-be-completed Churchill Marine Observatory (CMO) is a globally unique, highly innovative, multidisciplinary research facility in Churchill adjacent to Canada’s only Arctic deep-water port. The CMO will directly support the technological, scientific, ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social research that is needed to safely guide (through policy development) the unprecedented Arctic marine transportation and oil and gas exploration and development throughout the Arctic. The University of Calgary is partnering closely with the University of Manitoba on this CFI-sponsored initiative, which is being built at the perfect time to support the new Genome Canada project.

“The idea is that we will be able to emulate different thermodynamic states of the sea-ice and how, under these conditions, different crude and fuel oils will interact with native microbial populations in a controlled environment,” Stern adds.

GENICE aims to mitigate impact of expanding Arctic activities

The 2015 LSARP competition aims to support applied research projects focused on using genomic approaches to address challenges and opportunities of importance to Canada’s natural resources and environment sectors, including interactions between natural resources and the environment, thereby contributing to the Canadian bioeconomy and the well-being of Canadians.

“Climate change may present the opportunity for year-round shipping traffic along Canada’s Arctic coast. The work of the GENICE team on genomics-based bioremediation will help Canadian companies and agencies be better prepared to mitigate the environmental impact of expanding industrial activities in the Arctic,” says Reno Pontarollo, president and CEO, Genome Prairie.

“Casey Hubert and Gary Stern are working to address the growing pressures on Arctic marine environments, while also offering insights into protecting other coastal areas in Canada,” notes Dr. John Reynolds, acting vice-president (research) at the University of Calgary. “We thank Genome Canada and their subsidiaries, as well as the wide range of partners who have come together to support this project.”

Managed by Genome Alberta, Genome Prairie

The project will be managed by Genome Alberta in conjunction with Genome Prairie and with an international collaboration of funding partners that have shown the desire to protect the complex Arctic environment: Genome Canada, Alberta Economic Development and Trade, University of Manitoba, Natural Resources Canada, Arctic Institute of North America, Arctic Research Foundation, Stantec Consulting Ltd., National Research Council of Canada, Research Manitoba, University of Calgary Petroleum Reservoir Group, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Georgia Institute of Technology, Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Amundsen Science Inc., Environment and Climate Change Canada, Genome Quebec, Aphorist, and Aarhus University.




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