October 10, 2022

New research published in the American Society for Microbiology’s journal Microbiology Spectrum identifies the importance of microbes when investigating the impact of unconventional oil and gas extraction (hydraulic fracturing or fracking) on watersheds.

“We found that when you look at microbial fingerprints in streams, they can tell you whether that waterway has been impacted by unconventional oil and gas extraction much earlier than if you were to study larger organisms such as fish,” said Daniel Ressler, chair and associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Susquehanna University. Ressler was one of 13 researchers to participate in the project.

Because microbes reproduce quickly and are known to be sensitive to environmental changes, the organisms are the perfect “canary in the coal mine” when investigating environmental conditions, Ressler said. He investigated the soil and landscape portion of the research project.

While hydraulic fracturing has increased the energy output of some countries, the extraction process — which uses highly pressurized mixtures of water, sand and chemicals to release natural gas from rock — and accompanying industry infrastructure are known to have adverse environmental implications, particularly on waterways.

In this study, researchers utilized data that combines DNA, RNA, geochemistry and trace element analyses to establish the impact of hydraulic fracturing activity in 21 sites in northern Pennsylvania — nine with no active wells present in the watershed and 12 with at least one active well present in the watershed.

Researchers identified multiple biomarkers of fracking activity and contributors of antimicrobial resistance within a group of bacteria known as Burkholderiales, common in stream ecosystems and found in high concentrations in streams near fracking activity. Resistance can occur as a response to chemicals used during the fracking process that are designed to slow microbial growth as a way of mitigating its impact on gas and equipment.

They identified other antimicrobial resistance genes, landscape characteristics, geochemistry and specific microbes as strong predictors of hydraulic fracturing status, thereby developing a model to predict the industry’s impact on streams.

Others are affiliated with the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Juniata College, University of Guam and Michigan Technological University.

“It was exciting to work with such an impressive team of researchers to get this important work done,” Ressler said. “Our hope is that organizations will use the modeling we have developed in future testing of watersheds to determine the environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas extraction.”