This project will identify, characterize, and physiologically profile microbial taxa that may be capable of digesting petroleum hydrocarbons and providing ecosystem services to rehabilitate petroleum-contaminated landscapes.
Since the 1960s in the Sucumbíos Province of Ecuador, oil companies have established unlined basins filled with petroleum-contaminated waste from extraction operations. As a result, approximately 18.5 billions of gallons of oil now contaminates this biodiverse and ecologically unique rainforest.
This pollution has impacted local communities, wildlife, vegetation, and belowground soil microbial communities. However, soil microbial processes and native fungi may prove to be valuable assets for regenerating petroleum-contaminated ecosystems and supporting community health and ecosystem regeneration.
Some fungi can decompose pollutants within the soil as they digest complex plant cell wall components; like lignin—a structural component of most plants. Lignin has a complex carbon-based chemical structure similar to petroleum hydrocarbons, which pose a challenge for detoxifying polluted soil and water. Although decomposer fungi are promising candidates for fungal bioremediation of recalcitrant compounds, such as dioxin and petroleum hydrocarbons, soil microbial communities are incredibly diverse, even at small spatial scales. Indeed, determining which fungi and bacteria can persist in stressful environments would provide insight into their functional capacity. Therefore, characterizing whole microbial communities in petroleum contaminated systems may uncover microbial species which can serve as “covert operatives” in restoring degraded land. Moreover, these species may have the ability to contribute to attaining successful restoration and remediation outcomes.
Our projects in Ecuador aim to document microbial communities capable of surviving in severely contaminated conditions and naturally adapted to withstand severe petroleum contamination. Microbial treatment may reduce soil and water toxicity and ameliorate contaminated effluent entering the streams and groundwater in the region. Ecological restoration and bioremediation research employing microbial components is crucial to preserving biodiversity and protecting local communities.