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Photo of Xiaohui Bao (Photo courtesy of James Zheng)
October 27, 2008

Fungus may have potential to turn oilsands into forest

October 20, 2008

By Anne-Marie Hickey

A discovery by University of Saskatchewan graduate student Xiaohui Bao may help transform the Athabasca oilsands from looking like the Sahara Desert into a thriving forest.

Last March, while studying weeds that had been growing on extracted Athabasca oilsands to see how they survived, Bao identified a strain of fungus inside their roots that seemed to enable them to survive in desert-like conditions.

"I was really excited to find that this strain of fungus has potential for remediating oilsands in Alberta and in the future in Saskatchewan. It's really needed," says Bao, who completed her undergraduate degree in China and came to Canada to work with associate biology professor Susan Kaminskyj.

With further research, the discovery may help revegetate oilsands within five to 10 years, says Kaminskyj.

"We could return the oilsands to a state where you would never know we had taken something out. Based on what we know right now, it is entirely possible," she says.

Bao was advised by her professors in China to go to North America to do research. She chose Canada for its beauty, clean air and water. She hopes use of the fungus in oilsands developments will help Canada maintain its natural beauty.

Very few plants can survive on these desert-like sands. To extract the bitumen, oil companies use hot water and harsh chemicals, agitating the mixture until the bitumen bubbles to the top and can be removed. Sand is left hydrophobic after this process, meaning it cannot hold water.

"We were surprised that dandelion and thistle grew in the sands," says Bao. "We found that there is really no nutritional content on the oil sands and that they can't absorb water."

After extracting the fungus from the weeds, Bao inoculated tomato plants with it. Since the fungus is naturally occurring and grows within the roots of plants already in the oilsands areas, the researchers believe it will naturally colonize many different types of plants.

After two weeks' growth, the seedlings were planted in oilsands samples and something remarkable happened, she says.

The tomato plants inoculated with the fungus grew very well. The plants without the fungus quickly died. This initial experiment holds promise for other plant growth after bitumen extraction.

"We expect the fungus will also help other plant species so the oil industry could mine without creating an ecological mess. A lot of water is used and polluted in extracting oil from the oilsands," says Kaminskyj.

"This fungus might also help detoxify the land and the water, a key finding of Bao's research." The team examined Bao's fungus strain and other kinds of fungi at the Canadian Light Source to discover whether there's a biochemical difference between fungi that live in plants and fungi that do not.

The team hopes to better understand the symbiotic relationship between plants and the fungi that live within them.

Bao says she appreciates the opportunity to use the synchrotron.

"It's the only one in Canada. It stands for the most modern technology and human beings' creation and endless curiosity," she says. Kaminskyj says all plant species appear to contain symbiotic fungi.

"Having a fungus living inside a plant is normal, even if we do not always know what its function is," she explains.

Discovery of other fungal strains could potentially restore harsh, otherwise barren landscapes.

Colleagues in Washington State have already found other fungal strains with the potential to revitalize wastelands, including for very hot soils and for salty soils, says Kaminskyj. "There is no reason we won't find what we need if we know how to look," she says.

The research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Anne-Marie Hickey is a student intern for the University of Saskatchewan research communications office. Visit www.usask.ca/research for more stories of student research.

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