Christopher WeisenerChristopher Weisener leads a research project developing an early warning system for water quality by exploring microbes in sediment.

Project to advance understanding of risks to water quality

Developing technology to detect microbes in sediment as an early warning system for water quality is the focus of groundbreaking UWindsor research included in a $44 million federal funding announcement made Friday.

A team of scientists led by geomicrobiologist Christopher Weisener has received more than $622,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Strategic Partnership Grants to fund the project for three years.

Together with a $55,000 grant from the University of Windsor and $756,000 of in-kind contributions from industry and government partners, the end-product of the three-year research project will develop an Open ArrayTM chip to detect DNA and RNA to accurately and rapidly characterize microbial communities influencing nutrient release from sediment reservoirs.   

“This has not been done before,” Dr. Weisener said. “Building this kind of technology will improve our capabilities for determining nutrient sources and sinks in natural or agriculturally impacted watersheds, for understanding baselines. It will make it faster for us to diagnose systems under potential risk.”

Nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen used to fertilize crops get trapped in sediment in both natural wetlands and in man-made systems like water retention ponds and drainage systems. Increasingly frequent heavy rainfalls combined with periods of drought associated with climate change can release these nutrients into waterways, indirectly contributing to algal blooms and other water quality issues in the Great Lakes.

“There has not been a lot of study on how the sediment influences water quality,” Weisener said. “We’re going to be able to use this chip as a diagnostic tool.”

The research will involve UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research; Environment and Climate Change Canada; the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks; the Essex Region Conservation Authority; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers; and Bishop Water Technologies, which develops and implements nutrient treatment solutions.

UWindsor professors involved in the project include GLIER researchers Dan Heath, Ken Drouillard, and Scott Mundle.

“I am absolutely delighted that partners from industry, government, and academia have come together to examine nutrient dynamics in Southern Ontario watersheds,” said K.W. Michael Siu, UWindsor’s vice-president, research and innovation. “Their findings will shed new light on the potential risk of sediment-nutrient release, which is a current major concern for Lake Erie and an anticipated stress vector in other Canadian and global watersheds, as a result of climate change.”

Graduate students hired as part of the research project have already begun collecting sediment samples from Essex County and the Upper Thames region for early simulations, Weisener said.

“Right now, we have very, very limited understanding of the microbial world in the sediments. With this technology, we’ll gain a much more holistic understanding of both the water and the sediment.”

—Sarah Sacheli