Elizabeth Edwards is the Director of BioZone and a Professor in the Dept. of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry. She is an internationally renowned expert in bioremediation and environmental biotechnology who has spent over 30 years developing techniques that use bacteria to clean up sites with groundwater contamination. The focus of her work is to harness and enhance the innate ability of soil microbes to biologically transform common toxic pollutants, such as gasoline and industrial solvents, to render them less harmful to the environment and human health. Her research involves the characterization of microbial communities that degrade these compounds, and the use of molecular and genomic tools to detect gene and protein expression.
Dr. Edwards brings expertise in engineering scale-up and commercial application of bioproducts to BioZone, and was recognized with the 2009 NSERC Synergy Award for her highly successful partnership with Geosyntec, an international environmental consulting firm, and with SiREM, with whom she developed a microbial consortium called KB-1®. This commercially successful bioproduct biodegrades two of the world’s most common and persistent groundwater pollutants, PCE (a common dry-cleaning agent) and TCE (a degreasing solvent), more quickly and at a lower cost than conventional methods. It has been used at over 700 sites around the world.
Dr. Edwards’ research accomplishments have been recognized with several prestigious awards. She holds a Canada Research Chair in Anaerobic Biotechnology. She won a Killam Research Fellowship in 2008 and the Killam Prize in 2016 (Canada Council for the Arts). In 2011, she won the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) Engineering Medal for Research and Development. She has been inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineering and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2020, Dr. Edwards was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, One’ of the country’s most prestigious honors. Her publications include over 140 peer-reviewed journal articles, and many government and industrial reports, book chapters and conference papers.
How did you get started in bioremediation?
Ever since I was little, I have always loved water, canoeing, sailing, and swimming in the lakes and rivers in Quebec and Ontario. During my engineering undergraduate at McGill, I learned about and became interested in biological wastewater treatment. During my first real job at Seagram’s, one of their wells became contaminated with TCE and had to be shut down. At that time, I had no idea about groundwater, but eventually decided to pursue a PhD at Stanford and was accepted to work with Perry McCarty and the rest is history! The group of professors and students at Stanford were focused on the problem of groundwater contamination at the time, and I got completely hooked.
What is the main piece of advice that you give to your students or prospective students that are interested in pursuing a career in groundwater remediation?
To have an impact in groundwater remediation and really any environmental science and engineering problem you need to understand connections between so many different scientific disciplines, and also combine skills in the humanities and social sciences, policy, regulations, and business to name a few. Find somewhere where you can be exposed to as many different aspects of the problem at hand. Find somewhere where the sharing of data early and openly to all is the ethos.
Could you provide a brief high-level overview of some of the current projects that you are currently working on?
Believe it or not, I am still working on one of the projects I started as a PhD student in 1988, trying to discover the underlying mechanism for anaerobic benzene oxidation; this is a life-long quest it seems. We are also continuing to explore reductive dechlorination beyond common chlorinated solvents, to pesticides and herbicides and other semivolatile chemicals.
In general, my projects focus on anaerobic microbial processes, as these are less well studied and there is still so much to discover! For example, many enzymes (catalysts) in anaerobes are not known because doing research in a glovebox is much harder than just working on the lab bench. I have become very interested in enzymes that make use of cobamides like vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is the most complex cofactor in biology, is essential for life, only microbes make it, and it is a cofactor for dechlorination reactions as well as many other interesting and challenging biochemical reactions.
We are also trying to make some sense of the organisms and enzymes responsible for lignocellulosic decomposition in both lab-scale and commercial scale anaerobic digestors treating industrial pulp mill wastewater effluents and municipal solid wastes.
Finally, since December 2020, we’ve been involved in a massive provincial effort to monitor SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater entering sewage treatment plants as an unbiased measure of the prevalence of COVID in the community.
Is there a particular project that you have worked on that has presented a unique challenge or had unexpected results?
I think that every project you work on is harder than you expect. It is especially hard to do it properly and really ask the right questions and design a clever experiment. But in my experience one of the hardest things is writing up the results in an accurate, defensible, transparent, and useful way. This is particularly true of projects involving field work, where it is hard to control all variables sufficiently to have a perfectly clean story, yet the data are valuable because they are from a real system and not a model system that may be too oversimplified. Basically, writing well and accurately is very difficult and we all need to keep working at it.
Is there another area of research outside of bioremediation that you follow or find interesting?
So many areas of research are interesting! Enzyme discovery, anaerobic digestion, wastewater treatment, gut microbiome work, mass spectrometry, cryoelectron microscopy, viruses. In fact, viruses I think are a topic that warrants more attention. Not just viruses like SARS-CoV-2, but the viruses that infect the microbial communities we rely on for bioremediation. Recently we have found viruses and associated CRISPR immunity in Dehalococcoides, and even genetic elements that hijack viruses – so much warfare going on in the communities leading to biomass turnover and much more.
Is there a moment or achievement in your career that you are particularly proud of?
I think it was the first time KB-1® was injected into a field site; when we realized this crazy bioaugmentation idea might be working.
What do you enjoy doing outside of your job?
I love to be with my family, my children, and grandchildren and to play with hockey or go skiing with them. I love to bike. I love to be in Nature. I love a peanut butter sandwich.
Where do you see bioremediation in the future (20 years for now)?
I’m hopeful that current misconceptions will be allayed through better fundamental understanding of microbial processes that together will lead to greater overall reliance on bioremediation. Let us not forget that aerobic bioremediation/soil compositing is the most common technology of choice for hydrocarbon remediation. Contaminated sites are not sterile. Bioremediation is always on-going. And legacy complex contaminated sites and landfills are treasure troves of microbial diversity that will continue to be fun to mine for years to come. And remember that all remediation technologies are limited by challenges in mixing and distribution in the subsurface. After many decades of research with chlorinated solvents, bioremediation has emerged as the most sustainable option in most instances, perhaps combined with strategic strikes in hot spots. Therefore, better site characterization tools and more detailed contaminant delineation approaches will help reduce uncertainty in bioremediation – often cited as a deterrent to use. Finally, perhaps we’ll see microbes that manage to adapt to dealing with perfluorinated chemicals or plastic waste? I imagine so, eventually.