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Environmental Science

Systems biology-based environmental science research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is sophisticated and diverse. Three areas of study are part of PNNL's environmental science research: bio-based products research, marine research, and ecosystem health. Under these areas of study, our scientists conduct a variety of environmentally relevant investigations. They study genomics and proteomics of organisms useful for industrial processes, investigate the effects of pollutants on marine and freshwater organisms, and predict effects on ecosystems caused by environmental contaminants.

Bio-Based Product Research

Todd Werpy, Point of Contact

PNNL has been involved in bio-based product research since the mid-1970s. The hallmark of PNNL's bioproducts research has been the development and application of novel thermal, chemical, and biological processes to convert biomass to industrial and consumer products, fuels, and energy. We are working with private industry and government to rapidly translate scientific discoveries into deployable technologies that will benefit our nation and will reduce our reliance on foreign oil and gas supplies. Ongoing bio-based product research projects include the following.

Chemostat Technology Development for Research on Filamentous Fungi - Chemostat Technology is being developed to support state-of-the-art fungal research. This technology offers a more efficient approach to bioprocess research and will greatly improve proteomic research of fungi.

Fungal Genetics - Filamentous fungi are used in manufacturing processes to make acids, enzymes, and pharmaceutical products. Our scientists are identifying and cloning the critical morphology control genes of fungi. Knowledge gained from these efforts can be used to improve the output of commercially important organic acids by fungi.

Scientists at PNNL develop methods to convert biomass to industrial and consumer products, fuels, and energy.

Fungal Proteomics – The unique proteomic capabilities at PNNL are being used to identify proteins critical to morphological development in Phanerochaete chrysosporium, one of the only microorganisms that degrade significant amounts of lignin, a complex and highly crosslinked material involved in maintaining structural rigidity in plants.

Corn Fiber Processing – Researchers at PNNL are developing an economic process for the separation of corn fiber into its core building blocks: glucose, arabinose, xylose, ferulic acid, triglycerides, and sterols. Glucose, arabinose, and xylose are being evaluated as a feedstock for either fermentation to ethanol or direct aqueous phase catalytic conversion to propylene glycol, ethylene glycol, and glycerol. Ferulic acid will be evaluated as a feedstock for the production of vanillin. The specific components from the oil fraction, triglycerides and sterols, will be sold into existing markets and contribute significantly to the overall economic viability of the project.

For more information about PNNL's bio-based product research, including details about our research capabilities and projects, visit our Bio-Based Product Research homepage.

Marine Research Operations

Dick Ecker, Point of Contact

PNNL's Marine Sciences
At the Marine Sciences Laboratory on Sequim Bay in Washington's Puget Sound, PNNL researchers help protect marine animals from pollutants and restore disturbed habitats.

PNNL's Sequim Marine Research Operations (MRO) facility is located on the scenic Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The MRO is made up of the Marine Sciences Laboratory (MSL) and the Coastal Security Institute (CSI). Principal contributions of the MRO include marine and freshwater ecotoxicology, trace-contaminant analysis metals chemistry, organic chemistry, environmental forensics, coastal and wetland restoration, fisheries studies, research in remediation technologies and biotechnology, remote sensing, sensor technologies, coastal engineering, oceanography, and fate-and-transport modeling in ocean and near-shore regions.

Marine Sciences Laboratory - The MSL is the U.S. Department of Energy's only marine research laboratory. We use state-of-the-art equipment and facilities to advance the understanding of marine environments to solve problems for our clients. As part of our research we:

  • help our clients understand the effects of pollutants on marine and freshwater organisms
  • measure trace substances in the marine environment and develop tests to determine safe levels of the substances
  • assess and restore marine and coastal habitats
  • use satellite information and other remote sensing techniques to map, measure, and model what happens in the ocean and estuarine environments.

Coastal Security Institute – The CSI combines PNNL's areas of expertise in marine research and national security to address security issues in the marine environment. Researchers at the CSI work to more accurately and rapidly detect, identify, and characterize dynamic coastal environmental phenomena and events. Through research at the CSI we are developing technologies applicable to a wide spectrum of water-related security concerns, including but not limited to marine biosensors, tools for detecting radiological contamination, and detection technologies for weapons of mass destruction in coastal environments.

For more information about PNNL's marine research, visit our, Marine Sciences Laboratory, and Coastal Security Institute homepages.

Ecosystem Health

Core sectioning of sediment from the bottom of southern Hood Canal.
Field studies are an integral part of Ecosystem Health research.

Researchers at PNNL specialize in assessing ecosystem health and predicting the effects of contaminants on ecosystems. We monitor ecosystem health by studying contaminants in the groundwater, surface water, soil and vadose zone, air, vegetation, and wildlife. We use predictive models to assess the impact of chemicals on the environment and to assist in the regulatory or decision-making processes. For example, we created the Subsurface Transport Over Multiple Phases (STOMP) computer model to provide scientists and engineers with multidimensional analysis capabilities to address subsurface flow and transport challenges that include groundwater resource management, chemical and radioactive contaminant remediation, and carbon sequestration.

Another example of our capabilities can be seen at the Aquatic Research Facility, which is specially equipped for research on fish and other aquatic life. Scientists use the aquatics laboratory for studies regarding in vitro toxicology, fish physiology and behavior, ecosystem modeling, bioengineering, and biosensor development.

To learn more about ecosystem health research at PNNL, visit our Environmental Technology Directorate, Environmental Characterization and Risk Assessment, and Natural Resources Division home pages.

PNNL's Environmental Science Research Efforts Are Supported by a Variety of Projects

The following projects were originally granted support by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Environmental Remediation Science Division's Natural and Accelerated Bioremediation Research (NABIR) program, which has merged with the Environmental Management Science Program (EMSP) to become the Environmental Remediation Sciences Program (ERSP).

Biomolecular Mechanisms Controlling Metal and Radionuclide Transformations in Anaeromyxobacter dehalogenans – We are elucidating the molecular mechanisms of radionuclide biotransformation used by Anaeromyxobacter dehalogenans and assessing the effects of relevant environmental factors on these transformation reactions. Ultimately, the findings gained through this research will assist the design and implementation of more efficient bioremediation approaches to enhance the reductive transformation and immobilization of radionuclides at contaminated U.S. Department of Energy sites.

Anaerobic Biotransformation and Mobility of Pu and of Pu-EDTA – Researchers are studying many aspects of the biotransformation of plutonium (Pu) and Pu-ethylenediaminetetraacetate (Pu-EDTA) under various anaerobic conditions. By understanding these processes better, researchers can assess, model, and design approaches to stop Pu transport in groundwater at U.S. Department of Energy sites.

Biogeochemical Processes Controlling Microbial Reductive Precipitation of Radionuclides – Through our previous research we were the first to report evidence for the transport of a solid phase across the outer membrane of bacteria. We are defining the mechanisms by which Gram-negative, metal-reducing bacteria export contaminant nanoparticles from the periplasm and studying the subsequent biogeochemical behavior of the externalized nanoparticles.

Parallel Proteomic Identification of Metal Reductases and Determination of Their Relative Abundance in a Series of Metal-Reducing Microbes – Central to the NABIR goal to develop the scientific basis for in situ radioactive groundwater contaminant remediation is the fundamental understanding of microorganisms with dissimilatory metal-reducing activity. This project team is using high-throughput proteomics to identify the proteins responsible for metal reduction activity across 5 organisms, allowing inferences to be made about the similarities and differences of activities among the organisms.

The following project is supported by the National Institutes of Health.

3-D Imaging and Computer Model of the Respiratory Tract - To improve our ability to predict the consequences of airborne pollutants or drugs intentionally administered by inhalation for normal or potentially sensitive populations, a cross-disciplinary team of mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and biologists is developing three-dimensional, biologically based models of the respiratory tracts of animals and humans.

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