Take a Petri dish containing crude petroleum and it will release a strong odor distinctive of the toxins that make up the fossil fuel. Sprinkle mushroom spores over the Petri dish and let it sit for two weeks in an incubator, and surprise, the petroleum and its smell will disappear.
“The mushrooms consumed the petroleum!” – Mohamed Hijri professor University of Montreal
Hijri co-directs a project with B. Franz Lang promoting nature as the number one ally in the fight against contamination. Lang holds the Canada Research Chair on Comparative and Evolutionary Genomics and is a professor at the university’s Department of Biochemistry.
By using bacteria to stimulate the exceptional growth capacity of certain plants and microscopic mushrooms, Hijri and Lang believe they are able to create in situ decontamination units able to successfully attack the most contaminated sites on the planet.
The recipe is simple. In the spring, we plant willow cuttings at 25-centimeter intervals so the roots dive into the ground and soak up the degrading contaminants in the timber along with the bacteria. At the end of the season, we burn the stems and leaves and we are left with a handful of ashes imprisoning all of the heavy metals that accumulated in the plant cells. Highly contaminated soil will be cleansed after just a few cycles.
Thanks to the collaboration of an oil company from the Montreal area, the researchers had access to a microbiological paradise: an area where practically nothing can grow and where no one ventures without protective gear worthy of a space traveler. This is where Hijri collected microorganisms specialized in the ingestion of fossil fuels. “If we leave nature to itself, even the most contaminated sites will find some sort of balance thanks to the colonization by bacteria and mushrooms. But by isolating the most efficient species in this biological battle, we can gain a lot of time.”
Natural and artificial selection
This is the visible part of the project, which could lead to a breakthrough in soil decontamination. The project is called Improving Bioremediation of Polluted Soils Through Environmental Genomics and it requires time-consuming sampling and fieldwork as well as DNA sequencing of the species in question. The project involves 16 researchers from the University of Montreal and McGill University, many of which are affiliated with the IRBV. The team also includes four researchers, lawyers and political scientists, specializing in the ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social aspects of genomics.
Botanist Michel Labrecque is overseeing the plant portion of the project. The willow seems to be one of the leading species at this point given its rapid growth and premature foliation. In addition, its stem grows even stronger once it has been cut. Therefore, there is no need to plant new trees every year. However, the best willow species still needs to be determined.
By investing 7.6 million dollars over three years, Genome Canada, Genome Quebec and other partners are expecting concrete results in the soil decontamination market, which is estimated at 30 billion dollars in Canada alone. “The fact that the project ranked second amongst the best projects in the country took us by surprise,” says Lang who is already world renowned in genomics and bioinformatics, and who has been published in the most prestigious publications.
In the new luminous laboratories of the Centre sur la biodiversite, where Hijri just moved in with his team, everyone is very focused on the project. Over twenty people have been hired in recent months or will be shortly to see this project through.