Bioelectrochemical Systems As Tools To Study Subsurface Biogeochemical Processes

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Microbes capable of extracellular electron transfer have been identified, characterized, and isolated from a wide variety of environments, including many soils and sediments. These uniquely-adapted microbes have been extensively studied in bioelectrochemical systems, such as microbial fuel cells, microbial electrolysis cells, and microbial three-electrode systems. These bioengineered systems capitalize on their ability to respire with insoluble electron acceptors, including solid-state electrodes. However, the role that these microbes play within the microbial community and biogeochemistry of the soils and sediments in which they are naturally found is less clear. Subsurface microbial communities perform many functions, including: degrading organic matter, controlling carbon and nutrient availability for primary producers, producing greenhouse gases, and mitigating anthropogenic pollutants. Therefore, it is critical to understand the complex community dynamics that govern soil microbiome structure in subsurface environments, and to link microbial processes with landscape level ecosystem function. To this end, I developed a cost-effective and field-ready potentiostat, capable of long-term operation in remote areas with poised subsurface electrodes and measuring respiration of iron- and humic acid-reducing microbes. I integrated these systems with measurements of greenhouse gas emission from soils and characterization of microbiome structure to link the microbial and landscape scales. I applied these techniques to two environments: (1) Arctic peat soils outside Barrow, Alaska to study the impacts of dissimilatory metal-reduction and microbial community structure on greenhouse gas emissions; and (2) sediments in a riparian zone near Ithaca, New York to study differences in biogeochemistry across hydrologic and spatial gradients. In the Arctic, potentiostatic monitoring of bacterial respiration revealed a correlation with soil temperature and the activation of microbes at deeper depths as the thaw progressed. Furthermore, bioelectrochemical manipulation altered microbial community structure, enriching for proteobacteria, bacteroidetes, and verrucomicrobia phyla, and these changes impacted landscapescale processes by increasing methane emissions 15-43%. This work demonstrates a new technique for linking the microbial and landscape scales, the fragility of carbon-rich high latitude soils, and the potential for increased methane emissions in response to small shifts in biogeochemistry. In riparian zones, which are often critical to the mitigation of anthropogenic nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in aquatic ecosystems, I found that microbial processes are highly variably across relatively small spatial gradients (~50 m). One location had lower methane emissions which did not change as a result of bioelectrochemical manipulation; however, at another site which had higher control methane emissions (factor of 2), bioelectrochemical manipulation severely (50%) inhibited methane emissions. Despite these differences in landscape scale response, microbial community structure at both sites was altered by manipulation. The work from both locations (Arctic and New York State) demonstrates the complexity of subsurface microbial community dynamics, their ability to be influenced by small changes in conditions, and the tangible impact that these processes have on landscape-scale processes. Understanding the links between the microbial and landscape scales will be essential to predicting response to external stimuli, such as anthropogenic pollution and climate change.
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bioelectrochemical systems; soil microbiology; wetland ecosystems
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Angenent, Largus
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Gossett, James Michael
Aneshansley, Daniel Joseph
Land, Bruce Robert
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Agricultural and Biological Engineering
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Ph. D., Agricultural and Biological Engineering
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Government Document
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dissertation or thesis
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