It turns out cleaning up contaminated sites can get you invited to Rideau Hall, home of Canada’s Governor General. Just ask University of Toronto Professor Elizabeth Edwards who with a group of students and colleagues was at Rideau Hall on May 3, 2016 to accept the prestigious Killam prize, which includes a $100K monetary award, and is sometimes referred to as Canada’s Nobel. The Killam prizes were created to honor eminent Canadian scholars and scientists. Professor Edwards, an internationally renowned researcher, was being recognized for her work in the area of anaerobic bioremediation processes. Edward’s research activities have included the enrichment and characterization of a dechlorinating culture called KB-1® that is now produced commercially by SiREM.
The Beginning of Bioaugmentation
Who could have foreseen the impact of KB-1® almost 20 years ago when dirt and groundwater from a TCE contaminated site were placed in microcosm bottles? Edwards observed that not only was TCE degrading into non-toxic ethene gas but also that this activity was transferable to other microcosms. The practice of bioaugmentation for groundwater chlorinated solvent remediation was born! The next step was to enrich and characterize the microorganisms in KB-1® and with the isolation of the dechlorinating bacteria Dehalococcoides at Cornell University in 1997, understanding the processes occurring in those bottles became somewhat easier.
The First Field Pilot Test
It wasn’t long before the KB-1® from Edward’s lab took the long journey from Toronto to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in the first field test of bioaugmentation for chlorinated solvent remediation. From today’s vantage point, bioaugmentation may seem routine but back then there were a lot of questions. Is bioaugmentation even required? Would the lab-grown microbes survive out in the field? Would they grow and spread? What would the impact on chlorinated solvents be? Is bioaugmentation safe? The results of the Kelly AFB study were presented in a landmark paper (Major et al., 2000) that answered many of these questions demonstrating the successful introduction, growth and spread of Dehalococcoides and the introduction of dechlorinating activity where it had not existed previously.
The Impact of KB-1® on Bioremediation of Chlorinated Solvents
The Kelly AFB study helped lay the foundation for the establishment of SiREM: a business focused on remediation testing and bioaugmentation with KB-1®. Now, over 15 years later, the impact of those early studies is becoming clear. To date, more than 500 sites, on 5 continents including 45 US states, Canada, Australia and several countries in Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa have benefited from application of KB-1®. In a Science article “Breathing the Unbreathable” Edwards comments on how quickly KB-1® moved from the lab to widespread use. “The industrial application of these organohalide-respiring organisms is arguably one of the fastest translations of scientific discovery into practice”. Indeed, it took only about 5 years after the discovery of KB-1® and Dehalococcoides for SiREM to launch a business based on these beneficial microbes and within 10 years they were in widespread use.
What’s Next on the Horizon for Professor Edwards?
So after helping to revolutionize the field of chlorinated solvent remediation what is next for Edwards? For one, extending the reach of bioremediation to other problematic compounds, including the scale-up and field testing of an anaerobic benzene-degrading culture in a Genome Canada funded project with SiREM and Federated Cooperatives Limited. This project could revolutionize the way carcinogenic benzene is cleaned up at the many sites, including gas stations, where benzene is problematic. Even with all her accomplishments there is much work to do. “I’ve been trying to figure out anaerobic benzene transformation for over 25 years – it’s crazy to think that we might now be able to put that process to work to clean up sites”
“This is the era of microbiology. The opportunities are endless.”
The transition from the lab to the field and from dirt in bottles to prestigious prizes such as the Killam is all part of the journey. Edwards sums up where we sit at this point in time simply stating “This is the era of microbiology. The opportunities are endless.” Given her success it would be hard to argue otherwise.
Edwards, E. A. 2014 Breathing the Unbreathable, Science, 346 Vol. 346, Issue 6208
Major, D., M. McMaster, E. Cox, E. Edwards, S. Dworatzek, E. Hendrickson, M. Starr, J. Payne and L. Buonamici, 2002. Field Demonstration of Successful Bioaugmentation to Achieve Dechlorination of Tetrachloroethene to Ethene. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36: 5106-5116