Thompson Rivers University

Professorship boosts microbiologist’s research

May 31, 2023

Dr. Jonathan Van Hamme, Biological Sciences

A TRU faculty member’s research into breaking down toxic ‘forever chemicals’ is getting support that allows him to expand his work.

Dr. Jonathan Van Hamme, professor of Biological Sciences and scientific director of the TRUGen Applied Genomics Lab, has been awarded the prestigious Northcote and Brink Professorship. Established in 2005, the endowment honours the ecological contributions of Dr. Tom Northcote and Dr. Bert Brink in British Columbia.

The professorship may be held for up to three years and is valued at $10,000 annually.

Restoration and repair

As an environmental microbiologist with expertise in ecological remediation, Van Hamme will direct funds from the professorship toward training student researchers and a PhD research associate to develop tools to restore ecosystems contaminated with toxic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Commonly referred to as forever chemicals, many PFAS are a concern because they don’t break down in the environment.

“PFAS are distributed globally,” says Van Hamme. “Cookware, food and food packaging, clothing, plants, soil, drinking water, breast milk. You name it, PFAS will probably be found there. The goal is to provide answers regarding PFAS biodegradability.”

The research aims to understand how tiny organisms (microbes) break down and process these forever chemicals and develop soil and water remediation technologies to restore contaminated environments.

“We have a state-of-the-art laboratory that allows us to explore the relationship between PFAS and microorganisms in the environment,” says Van Hamme.

“Student researchers are able to grow microorganisms that metabolize PFAS, sequence their genomes, and explore both the genes expressed and protein catalysts (enzymes) produced by those microorganisms. Thanks to a collaboration with Dr. Jinxia Liu at McGill, one of the top PFAS analytical chemists in the world, students can ask powerful questions while receiving excellent scientific training.”

Dr. Karl Larsen, professor of Natural Resource Sciences, held the professorship in 2020 for researching BC’s most vulnerable species. Dr. Matt Reudink, associate professor of biology, earned the honour in 2017 for studying the conservation of migratory birds.

The professorship aims to expand TRU’s knowledge of the connection between restoration of ecosystems and the social benefits to communities.

Related Posts