Fracki-what Now?

Ohio State University researchers may have just discovered a new organism that thrives in collected water fluids in hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) wells.

Scientists may have found another “golden spike” which may signify the dawn of the human age of influence on the environment. Human activity may actually be creating new forms of life.

Rebecca Daly and her fellow researchers have taken to calling this previously unknown genus of bacteria as “Frackibacter”, partly a pun and homage to fracking. The Candidatus Frackibacter is unique in that did not come from the fluids pumped into the shales during hydraulic fracturing.

In the two separate hydraulic fracturing sites that the researchers sampled, the “Frackibacter” was present — despite the fact that the sites were far apart (one in Utica and the other in Marcellus). Furthermore, the two shales were both more than a mile and a half underground, contained distinct forms of fossil fuels, and were formed millions of years apart.

Wells of Life

There were 30 other microbial members found in the two distinct wells. They were able to identify a great majority of the bacteria. Among these, the most dominant was the bacterium Halanaerobium. The researchers were surprised by the level of similarity between the sites and their existing microbial population. Wrighton believes that this shows how the booming ecosystem in these wells were influenced more by the fracturing than the shales themselves.

Halanaerobium. Credits: Michael Wilkins (Ohio State University)

Researchers remain unsure of how this may have come to be. They attribute the bacterial ecosystem to the salinity of shales. After the different fracturing companies pump their own formulations of fluids into the wells, the salt from the shale mixes into it, producing briny water.

The organism are forced to survive on high temperature, pressure, and salinity. These stressors, coupled with the presence of viruses, all create an ecosystem of dependence and survival. And the Halanaerobium and “Frackibacter” play crucial roles in sustaining it. The findings have been published in the journal, Nature Microbiology.


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