Microbial diversity and biogeochemical processes in the Deilmann tailings management facility, Key Lake, Saskatchewan
The Deilmann Tailings Management Facility (DTMF) at Key Lake in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, is an active deposition site for uranium tailings and it has been in operation since 1996. In terms of geochemical stability of the tailings, a ferrihydrite secondary phase is utilized for the sequestration of contaminants, such as As, Ni, Mo, and Se, under alkaline and highly oxic conditions. Arsenic is highly abundant in the DTMF tailings and the principal environmental concern is the possibility for leaching of ferrihydrite-attached As into the surrounding environment. Microorganisms can proliferate in a broad range of habitats and their activities are key factors in determining fate and transport of contaminants in various environments. This thesis attempts to obtain insights into the biogeochemical processes that may occur during the early phase of the DTMF’s history that could potentially become significant over extended periods of time that run from 100’s to 1000’s of years. Hence, a primary focus was to characterize microbial diversity and extrapolate their potential functional roles as well as their potential to chemically alter the Eh and ferrihydrite, which are the primary controlling conditions within the DTMF tailings and in the mineral secondary phase, respectively. To achieve these goals, two molecular techniques (clone library construction and Ion Torrent sequencing), a range of conventional culture-based techniques, metabolic assays addressing metabolic transformation and resistance to metals/metalloids, microscopic technique (Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope), spectroscopic analyses (Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscope) and bench-scale microcosm assays were carried out. Culture-dependent and -independent methods revealed that the most prevalent microbial groups in the water column, tailings mass and at the tailings-water interface affiliated into phyla (e.g., Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, Firmicutes and Bacteriodetes) that have previously been detected at uranium-, heavy metal- and complex hydrocarbon-contaminated sites. Phylotypes closely related to well-characterized sulfate-, thiosulfate- and iron-reducing bacteria (e.g., Desulfosporosinus, Dethiobacter, Geoalkalibacter, Ralstonia, Georgfuchsia) were also detected at low frequency, with the exception of the tailings-water interface where sequences closely related to Desulfosporosinus were abundant. The readily culturable heterotrophs (e.g., Pseudomonas, Arthrobacter, Massilia, Hydrogenophaga, Polaromonas, Bacillus) retrieved from the tailings exhibited reducing/oxidizing capabilities as well as high tolerance to metal/metalloids. Bench scale microcosm assays showed that heterotrophs native to the DTMF site could not only reduce ferrihydrite but could also create highly reducing (< -300 mV) conditions within the tailings amenable to strict anaerobic bacteria such as Desulfosporosinus. STXM image analyses confirmed the presence of reduced iron in close proximity to bacterial cells in biofilm grown in situ and in microcosm tailings, strongly suggesting that ferrihydrite served as electron acceptor during microbial processes. Reduced iron detected in situ also indicated that microscale iron reduction could occur even though macroscale DTMF chemistry remained oxidizing. Overall, the nature of microbial community present in the DMTF system strongly indicated that complex hydrocarbons (e.g., kerosene) discharged into the tailings during processing could potentially support microbial processes that involve Fe and S cycling and that this process could become significant over extended period of times, contributing to arsenic escape into the environment.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
DepartmentFood and Bioproduct Sciences
SupervisorKORBER, DARREN R.; LAWRENCE, JOHN R.
CommitteeHILL, JANET; XIAO, QIU; VUJANOVIC, VLADIMIR
Copyright DateAugust 2015
uranium tailings, biotransformation, microbial diversity