Tracking functional bacterial biomarkers in response to a gradient of contaminant exposure within a river continuum
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Within all aquatic environments, aside from the physical dispersal of dissolved and/or particulate phase contaminants, alteration from both biological and chemical processes are shown to change the chemistry of the parent compounds. Often these alterations can lead to secondary influences because of cooperative microbial processes (i.e. coupled respiratory pathways and/or energy and biodegradation cycles), complicating our understanding of the biological impact that these mobile compounds impose on ecosystem health. The McMurray Formation (MF) (the formation constituting the minable bituminous oil sands) is a natural, ongoing source of hydrocarbon-bound sediments to river ecosystems in the region (via terrestrial and aquatic erosion), providing a natural "mesocosm" to track and characterize the effects of these compounds on regional aquatic primary productivity. Here we characterize the natural, in-situ microbial response to increasing hydrocarbon exposure along a river continuum in the downstream direction. Using the Steepbank River (STB), suspended and bed sediment samples were collected at 3 sites from upstream to downstream, as the water flows into and through the MF. Samples were then analyzed for the active, in-situ gene expression of the microbial communities. Results from both suspended and bed sediments show clear and significant shifts in the microbial metabolic processes within each respective compartment, in response to the elevated polycyclic aromatic compound (PAC) concentrations. Specific genes likely responsible for hydrocarbon breakdown (Alkane Monooxygenase, Benzoyl-CoA Reductase etc.) experience elevated expression levels, while certain energy metabolism genes (nitrogen, sulfur, methane) reveal fundamental shifts in their pathway specificity, indicating an adaptation response in their basic energy metabolism. Expression from suspended sediments reveal subtle yet delayed metabolic response further downstream compared to bed sediments, indicative of the erosion and transport dynamics within a lotic system. These results provide insight into the use of novel clusters of gene biomarkers to track the active, in-situ microbial response of both emerging and legacy contaminants. Such information will be important in determining the best management strategies for the monitoring and assessment of aquatic health in both natural and contaminated ecosystems.
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