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Research Spending & Results

Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:Michigan State University
  • Matthew Schrenk
  • (517) 355-5040
Award Date:07/30/2020
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 300,000
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 300,000
  • FY 2020=$300,000
Start Date:09/01/2020
End Date:08/31/2022
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.050
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:NSF2026: EAGER: Groundwater Microbial Communities as Sentinels of Environmental Change
Federal Award ID Number:2033891
DUNS ID:193247145
Parent DUNS ID:053343976
Program:ERE General
Program Officer:
  • Barbara Ransom
  • (703) 292-7792

Awardee Location

Street:Office of Sponsored Programs
City:East Lansing
County:East Lansing
Awardee Cong. District:08

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:Michigan State University
City:East Lansing
County:East Lansing
Cong. District:08

Abstract at Time of Award

With support from the NSF Directorate for Geosciences and the 2026 Fund Program in the Office of Integrated Activities, Professor Matthew Schrenk at Michigan State University conducts research that employs environmental DNA sequencing approaches to compare groundwater microbial communities along well-defined groundwater flow pathways. The work is designed to better understand how subsurface microbial populations move and adapt, and how they may impact environmental health. This research is important because, as the environment changes, water availability and quality has become a pressing issue for many populations across the globe. An enormous proportion of global freshwater resources resides in the fractures and pore spaces of groundwater aquifers and can be impacted by natural and anthropogenic perturbations. Within the subsurface groundwater habitat, microbial communities catalyze key biogeochemical transformations and respond to environmental changes, both at and below the land surface. However, little is known about how microbial communities vary along subterranean flow pathways from water on land to that which percolates down to the subsurface and from the land surface to its discharge into rivers, lakes, and oceans. The research involves a systematic, multi-disciplinary assessment of the subsurface microbial biosphere, knowledge critical for making accurate predictions of microbial response to land use change, to the introduction of contaminants, to the impact of water over-extraction, and to variations in climate. The work also provides a template for ongoing, large-scale, water quality surveys, domestically and abroad. Broader impacts of the project include engagement, mentoring, and training of a cohort of students who will be recruited through programs at Michigan State University that are focused on increasing the involvement of underrepresented groups in STEM research. In addition, the biogeochemical datasets generated through this study will be used to develop exploratory, 3-dimensional projections for outreach events at a campus-based museum. They will also be made accessible to local communities where the research is being conducted through Michigan Extension Services. Subsurface aquifers harbor a substantial portion of the global biosphere and carry out critical functions that sustain both human civilizations and a habitable planetary environment. Despite their important role, most microbiology studies of the subsurface are sparse and those that have been done have relied upon only a few samples and none have considered their hydrological context. As a result, we lack a clear understanding of the relationship between environmental changes (including human interventions) and the response of microorganisms in groundwater. This research focuses on advancing our knowledge of the subsurface microbiome and its complexion and impacts by characterizing the composition and activities of microbial communities along subterranean flow pathways that have been decoupled from the land surface over time scales ranging from years to millennia. The goal of the work is to better understand how these microbial communities respond to changes at and below the land surface and corresponding implications for human and environmental health. The proposed work will directly address microbial community composition and activities within the context of well-defined subsurface fluid circulation pathways within 3 aquifers in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Specific goals are to examine the impact of in situ environmental factors (e.g. oxidants, nutrients, salinity) as well as legacy factors at the land surface (e.g. urbanization, agriculture) in shaping microbial community structure. It will use this information to track how microbial signals propagate in the subsurface. Amplicon sequencing will be used to generate a taxonomic ‘fingerprint’ of microbial communities within individual water wells. These data will be combined with hydrological and geochemical data to study the coupling between biological, physical and chemical factors in subsurface groundwater reservoirs and along flow paths. Metagenomic approaches will be used to create a detailed inventory of microbial genome composition and functional potential within the aquifers, whereas metaproteomics will provide a quantitative metric of key functions within the subsurface habitat that can be integrated into biogeochemical models. These data will be used to develop ecological modeling approaches to examine the connectivity within fluid circulation pathways and to study environmental forcing factors for key processes. This regional-scale study, involving both geology and microbiology, will be used as a platform for outreach efforts aimed at highlighting the characteristics of groundwater resources and their susceptibility to environmental change. This project responds to the NSF2026 Idea Machine 2026 winning entry of “Global Microbiome in a Changing World”. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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