About Project

General Summary
Our present society is dependent on hydrocarbon resources. Oil, gas and coal accounted for over 80% of our primary energy production in 2004. Although it is desirable to shift our energy utilization towards “greener” renewable sources, this is a long-term goal. Any attempt to implement a drastic shift away from hydrocarbons would choke the economy by starving it of energy. Until technologies exist to deliver a high proportion of our energy from renewable sources, at a reasonable cost, we must ensure that we extract the existing hydrocarbon resources in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. This project will allow Canada to satisfy the growing gap between the supply and demand of petroleum while addressing important environmental concerns such as greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada is home to the world’s second largest hydrocarbon resource base and therefore must be a key player in the world’s energy future. Oil sands production alone is expected to increase from one to five million barrels per day in the next two decades. Although this will be an economic boom for all of Canada, it will impose a significant environmental footprint through water use and greenhouse gas emissions. New technologies are required to address and minimize this impact.

Using state of the art genomics tools and expertise, this project will develop a database that describes and harnesses the genetic potential of the microorganisms, genes and biological processes present in Canada’s oil sands, oilfields and coal beds. In the same way that genetic information generated by the human genome project is revolutionizing medicine and allowing doctors to target genes to improve the body’s health, information in the metagenomic database will allow scientists develop techniques to harness naturally occurring organisms and bioprocesses to decrease the environmental impact of hydrocarbon extraction. Recent advances in high throughput sequencing, and decreased costs, have only now made the creation of an extensive metagenomic database feasible. The innovative technology utilized by this project will not solely be limited to genomic tools, but will also include complementary technologies, such as proteomics. With the support of Genome Canada this project will put Canada in the forefront of greener energy and feedstock production from hydrocarbon resources and provide publically accessible knowledge and tools that may well be harnessed in a variety of novel and unexpected ways.

This project will exploit knowledge gained through metagenomic analysis and other tools used in this project to:

Improve our understanding of how methane, oil and oil sands are formed and how to optimize their recovery from aging oil reservoirs, oil sands deposits and coal beds
Decrease water demand and land lost in oil sands mining operations
Manage biogenic methane emissions from oil sands tailings ponds
Use Bioprocess and Bioproducts to reduce the amount of energy required for and greenhouse gases generated from hydrocarbon extraction
Control the generation of toxic and corrosive hydrogen sulfide

No major science or technology initiative goes forward today without timely consideration of the ethical, environmental, economic, legal and societal (GE3LS) aspects of the proposed work, processes and products. In this project GE3LS aspects will be considered in a proactive way in order to recognize factors that could influence the direction of the research and future development and impacts of possible products and processes. The regulations and procedures regarding the introduction or manipulation of microorganisms in the environment to enhance hydrocarbon recovery will be a focus of the GE3LS effort.

Scientific Summary

This project comprises the metagenomic characterization of the microbial communities inhabiting the hydrocarbon deposits of Canada with the aim of developing new and improving existing bioprocesses that enhance hydrocarbon recovery, reduce water and energy use, and minimize greenhouse gas emissions. The project will enable Canadian energy producers to address the growing gap between the supply and demand of petroleum while engaging concerns regarding the environmental impact of using these resources and is in accordance with Genome Canada’s research scope Microorganisms for Sustainable Processing Technologies.

The anaerobic microbial consortia present in the oil sands, oil fields and coal beds are expected to be diverse; however, the functional organization of the indigenous microbial communities in all of these environments is hypothesised to revolve around the water-mediated cracking of hydrocarbons to methane and CO2. This process is catalyzed by syntrophic bacteria which attack hydrocarbons in the oil and produce small molecule intermediates, like acetate, hydrogen and CO2. Methanogenic archaea then convert these molecules to methane. Because the syntrophs attack low molecular alkane and aromatic hydrocarbons this process leaves a heavier, more viscous oil with an increased content of complex, high molecular weight resins and asphaltenes. Over geological time this natural process converts light oil ® heavy oil ® oil sands bitumen. When sulfate is present, anaerobic Sulfate Reducing Bacteria (SRB) can act in place of the methanogenic archaea leading to the production of H2S instead of methane. SRB may collaborate with syntrophs or may themselves attack oil components. Most known syntrophs fall taxonomically in the delta class of the phylum Proteobacteria, to which most SRB also belong. The least understood component in this model of anaerobic hydrocarbon degradation is the identity of the syntrophs and the range of the oil components they metabolize. By determining the identity of the bacteria and the genes/bioprocesses active in these environments a large-scale metagenomics project will enable a complete model of anaerobic hydrocarbon degradation to be determined. This model will be the foundation used to develop strategies that harness the indigenous bioprocess on a practical time-scale and make hydrocarbon extraction greener.

Metagenomic Database: A primary goal of this project is the generation of a metagenomic database along with the bioinformatics tools to utilize it. This database will contain a comprehensive catalogue of the microorganisms and genetic potential present in oilfields, oil sands deposits and coal beds. Using high quality DNA extracted from environmental samples, 454 pyrosequencing will be used to sequence amplicons of the 16S rRNA molecules present, providing an inventory of bacterial and archaeal species. Based on scientific interest and community structures identified by the 16S sequencing, a subset of environmental samples will undergo in-depth random metagenomic sequencing using a combination of 454 random shotgun sequencing and end sequencing of a fosmid library constructed from these environments. This metagenomic sequencing will describe the genetic potential of these environments including their genes, operons and metabolic processes. By directly sequencing the genes in the environment, the limitations of traditional culture based techniques, which can fail to identify many of the indigenous species, are bypassed. This project will not solely rely on a sequence library to drive discoveries and applications. The fosmid libraries will be used for functional screens. Key microorganisms will be cultured (and sequenced) to facilitate physiological and microcosm studies. Gene expression studies will assess the function of genes with promising utility and leading edge proteomic tools developed at the PNNL will be used to identify the most abundant and important proteins present in these hydrocarbon resource environments.

Tailings Ponds: Enormous volumes of ‘tailings’ consisting of fine solids and hydrocarbons suspended in water are produced in the extraction of oil sands. The tailings are stored on site in large basins or ‘ponds’ where the slow settling of the fines impedes efficient water reuse. Moreover, biogenic methane production from the associated hydrocarbons has become a serious issue.  Importantly, this activity appears to accelerate tailings densification, and has the potential to improve water recycling. Several objectives of this project will enable tailings ponds to be managed in a way that improves water recycling and reduces methane emissions.  Key objectives include:

1.    Linking microorganisms in the tailings ponds to methane production and settling rate.

2.    Developing a model that identifies management practices for future tailings ponds.

Coal Bed Methane (CBM): In light of the declining conventional sources, the natural gas associated with coal beds is becoming increasingly important.  It is estimated that only 5% if Alberta’s coalbed methane reserves are recoverable.  Geochemical analysis of coal gases and coalbed environments indicate a large portion of the methane is of microbial origin and that microbial methane production is ongoing albeit at extremely low rates.  This project will assess the feasibility of increasing this biogenic methane production and capture by:

Identifying key community members participating syntrophy/methanogenesis.
Determining the effectiveness of enhancing biogenic methane production through the alteration of environmental parameters.

GE3LS: This metagenomics project aims to identify genes and bioprocesses of naturally occurring microorganisms in oil sands and coal beds that produce methane and carbon dioxide. New knowledge derived from this project will enhance our understanding of how to decrease use of water and emission of greenhouse gases, enhance extraction of clean burning gas from coal beds, and minimize the adverse environmental impact of oil sands production. This relatively new field of science brings with it new questions related to its potential impact on society.

Metagenomics raises questions relating to: regulatory concerns about the definition and meaning of microbial species; potential environmental, health and safety risks; the application of the International Convention on Biological Diversity to this type of research; the effect of public perception; and current metagenomics patenting practices.
Metagenomic studies will lead directly to the discovery of products or processes based on microbial metabolism that may be deployed in hydrocarbon rich environments. This raises further concerns of environmental health and safety and as well as questions of public reaction. The GE3LS component of this project will explore public conceptions around energy and investigate issues linked to this project in the areas of; a) metagenomics, b) water use, c) greenhouse gas emissions, d) bioremediation and e) manipulation of microorganisms to enhance hydrocarbon recovery. The GE3LS team will also cover regulatory issues pertinent to the project.

We aim to provide tools to the public, policy makers, regulators, the business community and researchers that help with the understanding and the management of the GE3LS issues related to the project. This will enable them to compare emerging technologies with established ones and identify legitimate questions associated with new science.