Clean Energy


Environmental Biology

David Graham, an ORNL microbial physiologist , examines thermokarst features outside Nome, Alaska, as part of the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiment: Arctic project. Led by ORNL, this multidisciplinary, multi-institutional collaboration seeks to improve climate model predictions through advanced understanding of coupled processes in Arctic terrestrial ecosystems.   [Image courtesy of Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]From gaining deeper insights into carbon cycling processes to understanding and predicting the mechanisms that control contaminant behavior in the environment, ORNL scientists are working to provide solutions for a cleaner world. This research cuts across numerous disciplines—including microbiology, biogeochemistry, molecular biology, molecular dynamics, bioinformatics, genomics, neutron science, chemistry, and computing—and spans multiple scales, from the molecular to landscape. Environmental biology studies at ORNL are conducted within several research areas and projects:

  • Microbial Ecology and Physiology
  • Carbon Cycling
  • Mercury Scientific Focus Area
  • Integrative Field-Scale Subsurface Research Challenge

Microbial Ecology and Physiology

Focusing on the ecology and genomics of environmental organisms, this research seeks to advance understanding of the basic science underlying nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, and microbial degradation of hazardous contaminants. Other objectives are to demonstrate application of innovative microbial techniques and bioremediation approaches in solving U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and national problems associated with sediment, soil, surface water, and groundwater contamination and to transfer new technology to industry.

In addition to projects supporting DOE environmental missions, ORNL microbial ecology and physiology activities examine the biological mechanisms underpinning bioenergy production and include research conducted within the DOE BioEnergy Science Center.

Microbial ecology and physiology research couples molecular biology, DNA technology, genomics, and bioreporter techniques with traditional microbiological methods to investigate microbial communities and the processes by which they transform materials and energy. Much of the funding for these studies is provided by DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research and Office of Fossil Energy.

Mercury Scientific Focus Area

The ORNL-led mercury scientific focus area (SFA) investigates the biogeochemical transformations that govern mercury speciation at the sediment-water interface and, particularly, the processes controlling methylmercury production. Funded by DOE’s Subsurface Biogeochemical Research program within the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, the mercury SFA is a multiscale, multidisciplinary, and multi-institutional research project that integrates geochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, and molecular simulations to understand mercury behavior in the field. This research is designed to make fundamental scientific contributions to support the prediction and mitigation of mercury at DOE contaminated sites. The SFA is underpinned by ORNL’s strong expertise in field-to-laboratory geochemistry and microbiology, a comprehensive regional groundwater model, world-class neutron sources, and high-performance computing capabilities.

Biogeochemical factors controlling methylmercury production at DOE sites represent serious knowledge gaps that ORNL is working to close by conducting research to:

  • Elucidate the rates, mechanisms, and controls of abiotic and microbial processes affecting mercury speciation and transformation and resolve how and what critical mercury precursors are produced and subsequently methylated at the sediment-water interface.
  • Understand the fundamental subcellular mechanisms of mercury methylation and demethylation by obtaining information on the structure and dynamics of biological macromolecules involved in the acquisition, transport, and transformation of major mercury species and methylmercury.

Closing these knowledge gaps will provide DOE and the nation with new approaches to mercury remediation.


Integrative Field-Scale Subsurface Research Challenge

The Oak Ridge integrative field-scale subsurface research challenge (IFRC) seeks to advance the understanding of and ability to predict coupled hydrological, geochemical, and microbiological processes that control the in situ transport, remediation, and natural attenuation of metals, radionuclides, and co-contaminants across multiple scales ranging from the molecular to watershed.

The Oak Ridge project, titled Multiscale Investigations on the Rates and Mechanisms of Targeted Immobilization and Natural Attenuation of Metal, Radionuclide, and Co-Contaminants in the Subsurface, is one of three multiyear IFRCs funded by DOE’s Subsurface Biogeochemical Research program within the Office of Biological and Environmental Research. The other IFRCs are located at the uranium mill tailings site in Rifle, Colorado, and the Hanford 300 area in Washington.

In Oak Ridge, field research takes place at a series of contaminated and uncontaminated sites at the Oak Ridge Field Research Center (ORFRC). The center and facilities are conducive to field research examining the processes that influence the transport and fate of subsurface metal and radionuclide contaminants, the effectiveness and long-term consequences of existing remediation options, and improved remediation strategies. Initiated in 2007, Oak Ridge IFRC research builds upon a suite of ORFRC investigations conducted from 2000–06, funded primarily by DOE’s former Natural and Accelerated Bioremediation Research (NABIR) program.

Led by ORNL, the multidisciplinary Oak Ridge IFRC includes collaborators from Argonne National Laboratory, Florida State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stanford University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Tennessee.



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