Science Daily reports on the hitherto-unknown genus of germs dubbed “Frackibacter,” after its disrupted shale-oil habitat:
The new genus is one of the 31 microbial members found living inside two separate fracturing wells, Ohio State University researchers and their colleagues report in the Sept. 5 online edition of the journal Nature Microbiology.
Even though the wells were hundreds of miles apart and drilled in different kinds of shale formations, the microbial communities inside them were nearly identical, the researchers discovered.
Almost all the microbes they found had been seen elsewhere before, and many likely came from the surface ponds that energy companies draw on to fill the wells. But that’s not the case with the newly identified Candidatus Frackibacter, which may be unique to hydraulic fracturing sites, said Kelly Wrighton, assistant professor of microbiology and biophysics at Ohio State.
By sampling fluids taken from the two wells over 328 days, the researchers reconstructed the genomes of bacteria and archaea living in the shale. To the researchers’ surprise, both wells — one drilled in Utica shale and the other drilled in Marcellus shale — developed nearly identical microbial communities.
In addition, the two wells are each owned by different energy companies that utilized different fracturing techniques. The two types of shale exist more than a mile and a half below ground, were formed millions of years apart, and contained different forms of fossil fuel. Yet one bacterium, Halanaerobium, emerged to dominate communities in both wells.
“We thought we might get some of the same types of bacteria, but the level of similarity was so high it was striking. That suggests that whatever’s happening in these ecosystems is more influenced by the fracturing than the inherent differences in the shale,” Wrighton said.
By examining the genomes of the different microbes, the researchers found that the osmoprotectants were being eaten by Halanaerobium and Candidatus Frackibacter. In turn, these bacteria provided food for other microbes called methanogens, which ultimately produced methane.
To validate their findings from the field, the researchers grew the same microbes in the lab under similar conditions. The lab-grown microbes also produced osmoprotectants that were converted into methane — a confirmation that the researchers are on the right track to understanding what’s happening inside the wells.
One implication of the study is that methane produced by microbes living in shale wells could possibly supplement the wells’ energy output.
Be kinda funny if, after everything, the frackers turned into farmers.