Natalie Blain studies bacteria in plant roots (photo by David Stobbe).

Bacteria may hold secret to oil sands remediation

Once thought impossible, plants are thriving on one of the oldest Alberta oil sands sites where barren land is slowly turning into a green space again.

By Federica Giannelli

Natalie Blain, a University of Saskatchewan master’s student, has researched the mystery behind this site, called Bitumount, and thinks the answer to the re-growth could be tiny microorganisms living in plant roots.     

Located near Fort McMurray, Bitumount hosted until the 1950s the first Canadian facilities experimenting with oil sands extraction methods.   

Blain’s research into root bacteria at Bitumount could play a role in understanding how to restore the oil sands degraded environment.  

“Bitumount is unique because it has both human-induced and naturally occurring hydrocarbons in the soil,” said Jim Germida, soil science professor, who is co-supervising Blain with soil microbiologist Bobbi Helgason.     

“Plants have been able to grow back. They have developed means to overcome hydrocarbon toxicity without human intervention.”        

Blain says bacteria are known to support plant growth in less than ideal environments. “They may help reduce the stress caused by the contamination,” she said.

She has been able to collect many types of plants from different locations at Bitumount to study how plant-growing bacteria work and whether they could be used as remediation tools.

Using a DNA molecular technique, she has found most of the bacteria were common varieties.

“These bacteria, called endophytes, can help plants get the nutrients they need or ‘eat’ contaminants in the soil around the root,” said Blain.    

And she also found other rare species of bacteria that may help the plants grow. The role of these bacteria is still unclear, but they could decrease contaminants, help plants get ‘food’ from the soil, or produce growth hormones, she said.      

Blain has also shown that some of these root-associated bacteria can be artificially grown in the lab, thus creating new ways for restoring areas of the Canadian boreal forest scarred by contamination.   

“These bacteria could help clean up contaminated soils in case of an oil spill or after the oil industry has mined an area,” she said.      

Germida’s research team will soon test the root bacteria to establish their decontamination efficacy and specific functions by growing plants inoculated with these bacteria in soil microcosms.   

Funded by federal agency NSERC, the project is part of the Forest Watershed and Riparian Disturbance Project (FORWARD), a nationwide funding partnership between Canadian universities and energy and oil sands companies. Since 2001, FORWARD has been integrating aquatic and soil science, hydrology, and forestry for the management and safeguarding of the boreal forest’s watersheds.    


Federica Giannelli is a graduate student intern in the U of S research profile and impact unit. 

This article first ran as part of the 2016 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.