Microbial Life in Fracking Fluids

A.J. Rohn

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A study published in Nature Microbiology examines the effects of shale gas fracking on the underground microbial ecosystem.

The discourse on fracking has been widespread, with economic, social, and environmental aspects. It has focused on the economic efficiencies of energy innovations, groundwater contamination risk, the controversy surrounding the broader use of fossil fuels, climate change, and more.

This study is a breakthrough in the biogeochemical consequences of fracking, investigating microbial communities in the fracking fluids.

The introduction of these fracking fluids very drastically changes the underground microbial ecosystems, and these changes can persist for over a year.


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As time passes after fracking, the study found that the fluid returning to the surface of the well became more and more dominated by the bacteria that thrive in highly saline environments including those of a new genus named Frackibacter.

These bacteria “contribute to corrosion and risk environmental contamination”, as well as impacting the economic side of fracking.

The study looks also into how viruses attack the bacteria, releasing chemicals into the environment that are usually found only within cells. These chemicals serve as a food source for the other bacteria, thus making the ecosystem completely self­sustaining as microbial community produces the chemicals, releases them, and feeds upon them. To thrive, the bacteria not only need to tolerate salts, but also must adapt to become immune to these viruses.

The introduction of fracking fluids very drastically changes the underground microbial ecosystems which become dominated by bacteria that thrive in highly saline environments including those of a new genus named Frackibacter. Figure from Daly et al. (2016).
The introduction of fracking fluids very drastically changes the underground microbial ecosystems which become dominated by bacteria that thrive in highly saline environments including those of a new genus named Frackibacter. Figure from Daly et al. (2016).

Fracking is a very popular topic amongst both energy insiders and environmentalists alike, and is discussed by presidential candidates and other politicians.

Studies like this one open up further understanding of an incredibly important issue. They provide more sides to a story that is already crucial to imagining a world that works to manage climate change and prevent its most devastating effects.

This bizarre ecosystem is only the most recent discovery in fracking studies. The next breakthrough in understanding the costs, benefits, and effects of fracking can come from any number of fields, from microbiology to fluvial geomorphology or geology.

More:

Daly, R. A., Borton, M. A., Wilkins, M. J., Hoyt, D. W., Kountz, D. J., Wolfe, R. A., … & Krzycki, J. A. (2016). Microbial metabolisms in a 2.5-km-deep ecosystem created by hydraulic fracturing in shalesNature Microbiology1, 16146.

Timmer, J. (2016, September 7).  Fracking creates an ecosystem 2.5km beneath the Earth’s surface.  Retrieved from http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/09/fracking-creates-an-ecosystem-2-5km-beneath-the-earths-surface

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About the author
A.J. Rohn
A.J. is a recent graduate of the Geography and Environmental Studies programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a passion for writing and interests in areas ranging from ecology to geosophy to geopolitics. He enjoys the geography of Wisconsin, be it the north woods or city life in Madison. He loves to read research papers in geography, books by scholars like Yi-Fu Tuan and Bill Cronon (both at UW-Madison), as well as classic fiction writers like Thomas Pynchon and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is very much inspired by the work of all the people he encountered in Madison’s geography department, so expect a wide range of topics when reading his articles here.