U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

How Injected Microbes Persist in Hydraulically Fractured Shale
Published: August 27, 2018
Posted: February 27, 2019

Scientists use laboratory and field studies to reveal the importance of an amino acid as an energy source and protectant for microbial community’s deep underground.

The Science
A boon to natural gas production, hydraulic fracturing or fracking introduces surface microbes thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface. How do they survive? Could they be harnessed to increase energy output? Scientists brought these microbes into the laboratory and found that the amino acid glycine betaine serves as an osmoprotectant and as an energy source for a specific community of microorganisms that become adapted to life in fractured shale.

The Impact
Sixty percent of U.S. natural gas comes from hydraulically fractured shales. These shales are located primarily in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. As engineers inject water and chemical additives into the ground, microbes hitch a ride. The microbes in this new fractured-shale ecosystem can affect the efficiency of gas and oil production, increase methane formation, corrode equipment, and “sour” the field. A greater understanding of the metabolism of these microbes will help scientists develop strategies to manage them and possibly increase their production.

Researchers at The Ohio State University, the University of New Hampshire, and West Virginia University worked with colleagues at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory; and the Joint Genome Institute (JGI). Both EMSL and JGI are Office of Science user facilities within the Department of Energy and sponsored by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research. The team recreated a shale microbial community in the laboratory, which allowed them to measure microbial activity and fluid chemistry under temperature and pressure conditions similar to those underground. They confirmed their results by comparing the laboratory-recreated communities with more than 40 real-world samples from five fracturing wells in the Appalachian Basin. Fusing metagenomics sequencing data from JGI with proteomic and metabolomics data from EMSL gave researchers unique insights into chemical transformations being controlled by the microorganisms. Based on these data, the team used regression-based modeling to identify key indicators of microbial activity and predict conditions underground. By scaling results from the laboratory to the field, they discovered mechanisms behind critical biogeochemical reactions, including ways to increase gas production. This knowledge could be harnessed to increase energy yields and improve management practices in hydraulically fractured shales. Such knowledge can also be applied to protein-rich microbial ecosystems like soils to predict emission of potent gasses.

BER PM Contact
Paul Bayer, SC-23.1, 301-903-5324

PI Contact
Kelly Wrighton
The Ohio State University

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science (Office of Biological and Environmental Research), including support of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory and the Joint Genome Institute, both DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

M.A. Borton, D.W. Hoyt, S. Roux, R.A. Daly, S.A. Welch, C.D. Nicora, S. Purvine, E.K. Eder, A.J. Hanson, J.M. Sheets, D.M. Morgan, R.A. Wolfe, S. Sharma, T.R. Carr, D.R. Cole, P.J. Mouser, M.S. Lipton, M.J. Wilkins, and K.C. Wrighton. “Coupled laboratory and field investigations resolve microbial interactions that underpin persistence in hydraulically fractured shales.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 115(28), E6585-E6594 (2018). [DOI:10.1073/pnas.1800155115]

Related Links
The Ohio State University news release Methane-producing microbial communities

These results build upon previous work Wrighton published in Nature Microbiology (2016):
Microbial Metabolism Impacts Sustainability of Fracking Efforts JGI science highlight

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL)
  • Research Area: Genomic Analysis and Systems Biology
  • Research Area: Microbes and Communities
  • Research Area: DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI)

Division: SC-23 BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

Recent Highlights

Aug 24, 2019
New Approach for Studying How Microbes Influence Their Environment
A diverse group of scientists suggests a common framework and targeting of known microbial processes [more...]

Aug 08, 2019
Nutrient-Hungry Peatland Microbes Reduce Carbon Loss Under Warmer Conditions
Enzyme production in peatlands reduces carbon lost to respiration under future high temperatures. [more...]

Aug 05, 2019
Amazon Forest Response to CO2 Fertilization Dependent on Plant Phosphorus Acquisition
AmazonFACE Model Intercomparison. The Science Plant growth is dependent on the availabi [more...]

Jul 29, 2019
A Slippery Slope: Soil Carbon Destabilization
Carbon gain or loss depends on the balance between competing biological, chemical, and physical reac [more...]

Jul 15, 2019
Field Evaluation of Gas Analyzers for Measuring Ecosystem Fluxes
How gas analyzer type and correction method impact measured fluxes. The Science A side- [more...]

List all highlights (possible long download time)