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MARCH 31, 2020
Web Feature

Scientists Take Aim at the Coronavirus Toolkit

A PNNL scientist is studying the structures of the proteins on the surface of the novel coronavirus, using NMR spectroscopy to reveal information about the molecular toolkit that holds the keys to a vaccine or treatment.

Tracking the Behavior of a Uranium Plume

View of Columbia River

Field research coupled with three-dimensional modeling are used to predict how groundwater and river exchange influence a contaminant plume.

March 16, 2020
March 16, 2020
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The Science
A recent paper published in Water Resources Research found that the spatial variability of subsurface sediments, and seasonal fluctuations in a river’s water level, influences the behavior of a uranium contaminant plume, particularly in rivers influenced by dams.

The research team created a complex numerical model and ran a 5-year simulation of the exchange between surface water and groundwater in a portion of the Columbia River at the Hanford Site. Model accuracy was evaluated using detailed water sampling data from the site, distributed in space and time. Both the model and data from site samples showed that the uranium can travel via multiple paths of river water and groundwater exchange.

The Impact
Predicting and modeling the evolution of a contaminant plume in a river corridor subject to rising and falling water levels from upstream dam operations is challenging. Factors such as seasonal dam discharge variation, the permeability of surface and subsurface materials, and changes in water chemistry, make river corridors a complex environment to study. This study is one of a few that have used a highly detailed three-dimensional modeling approach to simulate the migration of contaminants as influenced by the hydrologic exchanges between surface and subsurface waters at a large spatial scale. High-resolution monitoring, to ground truth the model’s accuracy, provided researchers a robust evaluation of the model’s predictive capabilities. Ultimately, the methods and findings in this study provide a foundation for designing future modeling and monitoring research to assist in environmental management and decision making.

Heatmap image of plume
Study site showing a) the uranium plume within Hanford’s 300 area, along the Columbia River, and b) the groundwater-surface water study site and water topography. Wells sampled in this study are marked with red circles.

Summary
A team of scientists led by John Zachara of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory examined the impact of river water and groundwater exchange in relation to a uranium contaminant plume migration at Hanford, Washington. The goal was to develop and improve the predictive understanding of hydrologic exchange flows and their role in changing river corridor biogeochemistry.

The team used an innovative combination of field sampling and three-dimensional mathematical models to investigate how river stage variation over seasons and subsurface hydrogeology interact to influence subsurface contaminant migration. In this work, the authors note that there are very few studies that model solute transport or plume behavior during dynamic hydrologic exchange in large river corridors, and that the model they developed can be applied to other, similar riverine systems.

According to both their model and data, river water exchange with groundwater in large, gravel-bed river corridors may create a wide interaction zone, which is different from most headwater systems. Water level variations in dam-regulated river corridors lead to changing flow directions, velocities, and sediment compositions, that influence contaminant plume behavior. The residence time and transport distance of intruded river water is controlled by both river stage and subsurface hydrogeologic features.

Funded by the Department of Energy’s Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program, this work addresses DOE’s mission to improve the predictive understanding of how watershed systems respond to environmental perturbations caused by changes in water availability/quality, land use/vegetation cover, and inorganic element/contaminant loading. Researchers used the DOE-funded NERSC, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, user facility in their model development.

Contact
John Zachara, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, john.zachara@pnnl.gov

Funding
This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), as part of the Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Scientific Focus Area (SFA) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

J.M. Zachara, C. Xingyuan, S. Xuehang, P. Shuai, C. Murray, C. T. Resch. “Kilometer‐scale hydrologic exchange flows in a gravel‐bed river corridor and their implications to solute migration.” Water Resources Research, e02851-18 (2020). DOI: 10.1029/2019WR025258

Microbial diversity influences nitrogen cycling in rivers

Image of streambed

Seasonal changes affect microbiome communities, genes, and subsurface biogeochemical pathways differently

March 4, 2020
March 4, 2020
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The Science
DOE researchers investigated the role of microbial genetic diversity in two major subsurface biogeochemical processes: nitrification and denitrification. Results show that across different seasons only a few microbe species, namely Nitrosoarchaeum, carry out nitrification functions—demonstrating high resistance to environmental change. However, denitrification genes, which are more broadly distributed in the community, displayed a variety of diversity patterns and abundance dynamics—demonstrating greater microbial interactions as conditions change.

Nitrogen cycling in hyporheic zone
Figure shows nitrogen transformations in the hyporheic zone, where a vast microbiome community influences nutrient cycling. Upper layers, closer to the riverbed contain more oxygen and organic matter. Under these conditions nitrification (orange arrows) occurs. Microbes transform the nitrogen from organic matter through a variety of steps and ultimately deplete the oxygen. As oxygen depletes, denitrification (blue arrows) further transforms nitrogen, resulting in an electron acceptor for catabolism of organic matter.

The Impact
There is little research connecting microbiomes at the genetic level to hydrobiogeochemical modeling. This research helps broaden collective knowledge for a better understanding of the pathways affected by environmental changes. For example, under extreme environmental conditions an entire biochemical pathway could be altered or eliminated if a single step has low genetic diversity such that its loss could not be replaced.

Summary
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory research team, led by Bill Nelson, found that major environmental processes—specifically nitrification and denitrification—are maintained through a variety of diversity strategies. Historically, the bulk of biogeochemical research has focused on microbial communities at the organismal level. But this research focused on the importance of genetic distribution and diversity.

In their recent PLoS ONE paper, the researchers discuss the roles microbes play in ecological functions; the novelty of the genetic makeup of these microbes; and future research opportunities to determine which organisms are genetically expressing nitrogen cycling functions.

The novelty of this study comes from examining the temporal dynamics of diversity at the gene level. To evaluate all genes in the nitrification and denitrification pathways, novel Hidden Markov Models (HMMs) were developed that can recognize the broad diversity found in environmental samples. They found that while different environmental conditions impair microbiome growth and the gene expression of some populations, at the same time, it can stimulate others. High biodiversity at the organism or genetic level creates more resiliency, and the microbiome community can respond more rapidly to environmental changes.

Contact
Bill Nelson, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, William.Nelson@pnnl.gov

Funding
This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), as part of the Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Scientific Focus Area (SFA) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

W.C. Nelson, E.B. Graham, A.R. Crump, S.J. Fansler, E.V. Arntzen, D.W. Kennedy, J.C. Stegen, “Distinct temporal diversity profiles for nitrogen cycling genes in a hyporheic microbiome”. PLoS ONE 15(1) e0228165 (2020). [DOI: 10.1371/ journal.pone.0228165]

Peeking Into the Lives of Soil Microbiomes

Photo of plant in soil

SoilBox provides in-depth imaging and characterization of soil microbial communities in their native environments.

February 28, 2020
February 25, 2020
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The Science
To better characterize the vast diversity of soil microbes and their interactions, DOE researchers developed a high-tech simulated soil core called SoilBox. This 16.7-centimeter-deep box allows researchers to visualize soil microbes’ complex interactions using different imaging methods and facilitating, for the first time, visualization of the soil microbiome’s organization and community metabolism. Furthermore, SoilBox provides a tool for researchers to observe how soil microbial communities respond to environmental changes and perturbations.

The Impact
The complexity of soil makes spatial imaging of soil microbial communities challenging. Using SoilBox, researchers can now visualize the diversity and metabolic

Graphic of Soilbox
SoilBox allows researchers to characterize and image soil microbiome dynamics at a level of resolution not previously available. This especially applies to how soil microbes respond to environmental shifts.

landscape of the soil microbiome under different environmental conditions, such as soil moisture and temperature. Understanding the basic biology of the soil microbiome is necessary for understanding how native soil systems respond to environmental perturbations such as drought, lack of nutrients, and fire. 

Summary
Soil-dwelling microbes are key players in the overall health of soil ecosystems, performing critical functions like carbon and nutrient cycling. The interplay between the soil microbiome and the soil it inhabits is a dynamic relationship heavily influenced by factors such as soil acidity, organic content, and temperature. The size and distribution of soil particles also affects many soil characteristics, adding to the already complex challenge of accurately describing structure-function relationships of soil microbial communities.

To address the difficulties of studying the soil microbiome in its native state and at a microscale resolution, a team of researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, led by Arunima Bhattacharjee and Chris Anderton, developed SoilBox. This system represents a soil ecosystem by simulating an ~12-cm-deep soil core; several windows facilitate molecular and optical imaging measurements that are crucial to understanding the nuanced interactions between the soil microbiome and its environment. This novel imaging capability allows scientists to study the dynamic landscape of soil microbial communities as they relate to environmental changes, including nutrient cycling.

This work overcomes the challenge of visualizing the diversity of soil microbial communities in the complex and ever-changing environment of soil. SoilBox will be used in the near future to investigate soil microbial community dynamics.

Contact
Chris Anderton, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, christopher.anderton@pnnl.gov

Funding
This research was supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) and is a contribution of the Scientific Focus Area "Phenotypic response of the soil microbiome to environmental perturbations." Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is operated for the DOE by Battelle Memorial Institute under Contract DE-AC05-76RLO1830. A portion of the research was performed using EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science User Facility sponsored by BER and located at PNNL.

A. Bhattacharjee et al.,“Visualizing microbial community dynamics via a controllable soil environment.” mSystems 5, 1:e00645-19 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1128/mSystems.00645-19.

JANUARY 10, 2020
Web Feature

Clark Recognized for Nuclear Chemistry Research

The world’s largest scientific society honored Sue B. Clark, a PNNL and WSU chemist, for contributions toward resolving our legacy of radioactive waste, advancing nuclear safeguards, and developing landmark nuclear research capabilities.

Protecting climate-sensitive soil ecosystems

Image of permafrost landscape

Review paper summarizes the effects of climate change on soil microorganisms and the ecosystem services they provide, and evaluates potential mitigation measures.

October 14, 2019
October 14, 2019
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The Science
Researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reviewed the current state of knowledge about the impacts of climate change on soil microorganisms in different climate-sensitive soil ecosystems. They also examined the possibilities of using soil microorganisms to store carbon or inoculate plants to help mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. Based on their review, the authors recommend an integrated approach that combines beneficial properties of soil microorganisms with sustainable soil management practices to support plant production, maintain a clean water supply, sustain biodiversity, store carbon, and increase resilience in the face of a changing climate.

Research showed that microbial physiology largely determines the ability of soil ecosystems to adapt to climate change, and that some microbiomes may be suitable for mitigation measures such as carbon sequestration and plant inoculation.
Research showed that microbial physiology largely determines the ability of soil ecosystems to adapt to climate change, and that some microbiomes may be suitable for mitigation measures such as carbon sequestration and plant inoculation.

The Impact
The effects of climate change on soil microbial communities have potentially large consequences for Earth's soil ecosystems and the beneficial services that soil microbiomes provide. This review highlights the need to connect the fine-scale details arising from microbiome studies to the landscape-scale resolution of many Earth system climate models in the search for climate change mitigation measures.

Summary
On Earth’s terrestrial surface, the soil microbiome cycles nutrients to sustain plant and animal life. While this microbial community is innately connected to environmental conditions, impacts on the soil microbiome due to climate change vary depending on the ecosystem. Different aspects of climate change impact soil microbial communities and their important ecosystem functions, such as cycling of carbon and supporting plant growth. But the molecular details of soil biochemical reactions responsible for these key functions are largely unknown.

Researchers synthesized existing knowledge of climate change impacts across a range of soil environments—permafrost, forests, grassland, wetlands, and deserts—to examine how the microbiome responds. They looked at microbial changes coinciding with different climate change variables including increases in carbon dioxide levels, temperatures, drought, flooding, and fires. Their review showed that microbial physiology largely determines the ability of soil ecosystems to adapt, and that some microbiomes may be suitable for climate change mitigation measures such as carbon sequestration and promoting plant growth. The review sets the stage for future research on soil microbiomes and challenges to overcome in order to connect to larger-scale predictive models of climate change.

Contacts
Janet Jansson, Lab Fellow, janet.jansson@pnnl.gov
Kirsten Hofmockel, Earth Scientist, kirsten.hofmockel@pnnl.gov

Funding
This research was supported by the Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) Genomic Science Program and is a contribution of the Scientific Focus Area "Phenotypic response of the soil microbiome to environmental perturbations." PNNL is operated for DOE by Battelle Memorial Institute under Contract DE-AC05-76RLO1830. A portion of the research was performed using the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science User Facility sponsored by BER and located at PNNL.

J. Jansson and K.Hofmockel, “Soil microbiomes and climate changeNature Reviews Microbiology, 04 October 2019. [DOI: 10.1038/s41579-019-0265-7]

Fire Increases Ecosystem Vulnerability to Future Disturbance Events

Image of forest fire

Burned landscapes are hit harder by extreme rain than unscathed ones.

October 4, 2019
October 4, 2019
Highlight

The Science         
New work from a team including researchers Vanessa Garayburu-Caruso, Swatantar Kumar, and corresponding author Emily Graham at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and Joseph Knelman at the University of Colorado, examines how back-to-back extreme events can affect a forest landscape. They find that a forest fire leaves marks far deeper than the destruction visible on the surface, making the soil more vulnerable to damage from subsequent flooding.

The Impact
This study is one of a few in an emerging field of investigation that is able to capture ecosystem effects of multiple disturbances in natural settings. It bridges scientific disciplines by linking changes in soil chemistry, microbiome structure, and biogeochemical function using methods from ecological theory.

Summary
Extreme natural events are often thought to be in isolation from each other—a big wildfire in one season, heavy rains in another. But as climate change makes such disturbances more frequent and intense, ecosystems are likely to face chains of disturbance events in relatively quick succession, with one instance affecting the ability to recover from the next.  The compounding effects of multiple disturbances on ecosystem health remain poorly understood, since the unpredictability of natural events makes them challenging to study.

To better understand the issue, the researchers repeatedly collected soil samples in Boulder, Colorado’s Four Mile Canyon for over three years after a major wildfire. At the 37-month mark, an extreme precipitation event dropped more than 400 millimeters of rain within a week. Samples were collected from an undisturbed forest landscape and an adjacent fire-disturbed landscape, allowing the researchers to investigate the combined effects of multiple disturbances in comparison to a landscape experiencing flooding only. Researchers assessed the samples’ soil edaphic properties (moisture, pH, percent nitrogen, and percent carbon); bacterial community composition and assembly; and soil enzyme activities. They found that previous fire exposure caused forests to be more strongly affected by a subsequent flooding event than unburned forests. This was driven by increases in pH, shifts in microbiome structure, and increased microbial investment in nitrogen versus carbon cycling.

The team is also investigating compounding disturbances using the Columbia River as a model system. River stage variation in the Columbia causes frequent wetting and drying of the shoreline that provides a natural laboratory for investigating compounding disturbances. Results are expected in the fall of fiscal year 2020.

Contact
Emily B. Graham, Quantitative Ecosystem Ecologist, emily.graham@pnnl.gov

Funding
This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), as part of the Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Scientific Focus Area (SFA) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).  

J.E. Knelman, S.K. Schmidt, V. Garayburu-Caruso, S. Kumar, E.B. Graham, “Multiple, Compounding Disturbances in a Forest Ecosystem: Fire Increases Susceptibility of Soil Edaphic Properties, Bacterial Community Structure, and Function to Change with Extreme Precipitation Event.” Soil Systems (2019) 3(2):40.

Nutrient-Hungry Peatland Microbes Reduce Carbon Loss Under Warmer Conditions

Image of Peatland forest

Enzyme production in peatlands reduces carbon lost to respiration under future high temperatures.

October 3, 2019
October 3, 2019
Highlight

The Science
As atmospheric temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations rise, photosynthesis by plants is expected to increase, leading to more photosynthate released by roots to the soil microbial community. Researchers from Pacific Northwest Northwest National Laboratory and Iowa State University examined the response of boreal peatland soils under future high temperatures. The team found that the peatland’s soil microbial communities allocated more carbon to enzyme production in search of phosphorus as temperatures climbed. This diversion of carbon resources could reduce future carbon losses by microbial respiration from the peatland.

The Impact
As boreal peatlands face warmer and drier conditions, it is expected that more carbon will be lost from these carbon-rich soils through increased microbial activity. This study showed that enhanced respiration and concomitant loss of carbon is potentially constrained by nutrient demands of the microorganisms. This tradeoff may help the peatland ecosystem retain soil carbon as temperatures warm.

Summary
Root exudates are carbon compounds, such as sugars and organic acids, which are easily consumed by soil microorganisms. With a warming climate, science suggests that increased photosynthesis by plants could lead to more photosynthate released as root exudates to the soil microbial community. To examine this question, researchers used laboratory incubations to control both temperature and moisture and simulate belowground substrate additions under an accelerated growing season. Results showed that with a moderate increase in temperature, the addition of common root exude compounds in peatlands initially increased carbon lost through microbial respiration above those treatments receiving water only. However, when pushed to future expected high temperatures, additional exudate compounds dampened the amount of additional carbon respired as compared to treatments receiving water only. This reduction in respiration suggests the microorganisms allocated carbon compounds to enzyme production to mine for limited resources instead of respiring carbon. The data also support the idea that boreal peatland microbial communities maintain a more narrow range in function, measured as respiration, across a range in climate conditions. A wide climatic niche in addition to reallocation of carbon resources dampens the magnitude of change in carbon respiration with increasing temperatures.

Contact
Kirsten Hofmockel
Biological and Environmental Scienes Directorate
kirsten.hofmockel@pnnl.gov

Funding
This material is based upon work supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) Program, under grant ER65430 to Iowa State University.

Keiser, A.D., Smith, M., Bell, S. & Hofmockel, K.S. Peatland microbial community response to altered climate tempered by nutrient availability. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 137, 1-9, (2019).