Thompson Rivers University

Revealing the genomic mysteries of long-term biosolid use

December 5, 2016

Dr. Jonathan Van Hamme, Associate Professor of microbiology.

Nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Wendy Gardner set up two test plots on old tailings at a nearby mine that were amended using Metro Vancouver biosolids. Today, these plots provide the perfect living lab, allowing researchers to unlock clues about the long-term impact of the use of biosolids in mine reclamation efforts.

Supported by Genome BC, Metro Vancouver and a local mining company, Dr. Jonathan Van Hamme is now poised to uncover some of the genomic mysteries housed within these 20-year-old test plots.

Read: Biosolids offer remediation options for mine reclamation, Nov. 25, 2016

The project, “Long-term impacts of biosolids on soil microbial communities during mine tailings reclamation,” is valued at more than $190,000 and is funded through Genome BC’s User Partnership Program.

Mine tailings are like beach sand, said Van Hamme, explaining that for plants to grow on these sites, organic material must be added. In 1998, Gardner established the test plots using varying concentrations of biosolids; she then seeded the area.

The sites were left undisturbed; even the fencing around each plot still stands, which Van Hamme calls “amazing.” It’s important to begin this research immediately, however, before the sites are destroyed by future mining.

Van Hamme will use genomic tools to undertake a comprehensive microbial community analysis, monitoring microbial gene expression related to metal toxicity and biologically mediated metal transformations.

“The microbial communities really drive the plant development. We’re using genomic tools to spot the difference in the microbial communities of the treated and untreated areas,” he said. “Microbes can do really cool things with metals, and can even sequester metal. We can also look for the genes responsible for disease-causing organisms.”

Van Hamme is working alongside Gardner, who is exploring how biosolid treatments impact the chemical and physical properties of the soil, specifically in terms of plant available nutrients and metals.

Dr. Lauchlan Fraser, meanwhile, is leading a research project that investigates the public perception of the use of biosolids in land applications. Both Gardner and Fraser are supported by Metro Vancouver.

It is hoped that together these research projects will define what, if any, risks there are in applying biosolids for reclamation purposes.

“Class A biosolids are highly controlled substances, but it’s important to monitor their use,” said Van Hamme. “If we do discover something of concern this information will help biosolid processers make a safer product.”

More information

Dr. Jonathan Van Hamme

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