Can microorganisms help protect our groundwater from contamination by hydraulic fracturing?

Lee Stanish | Stephen Osborn

The SciFund Challenge

This project ended on:
13 March 2014

There is growing concern over the safety of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", to extract natural gas. However, the risks to groundwater quality are not clear, and we often lack baseline data or monitoring schemes to protect all groundwater supplies. The goal of this study is to determine if microscopic organisms (microbes) can be used to trace methane contamination in groundwater from natural gas extraction activities.


Budget Overview

The funds would be used to finance field travel, materials needed for DNA extraction and sequencing, and for geochemical analyses.

Field Travel

Lee will travel to eastern Pennsylvania this spring or summer to conduct field research. Groundwater containing no methane (control wells), biogenic methane, and thermogenic methane will be targeted based on previous studies. Because samples must be processed quickly after collection, her vehicle will double as a "mobile laboratory", where water will be processed for DNA and isotopic analyses.

Microbial analysis

Once samples are processed and returned to CU Boulder, the DNA will be extracted, quality-checked, and sent off for DNA sequencing. We will use a technology called Illumina MiSeq, which produces around 50,000 sequences per sample. That's a lot of data!

Geochemical analyses

For ten of the most promising samples, methane will be measured using a gas chromatograph, while the 13C/12C carbon isotopes of the methane will be measured using a high-precision duel inlet mass spectrometer.

STRETCH GOAL: If we reach our funding goal, then we will analyze methane concentrations and carbon isotopes of even more samples. With an additional ~$3900, we can analyze ten more samples. This would give us much more confidence in our data and would dramatically increase the study's impact on the scientific community.

All donors will have access to my lab notes, which I will update regularly to keep you all informed. If you donate at least $25, you can request to receive a montage of video 'bloopers' that didn't make the cut for the final video. Folks who donate a minimum of $100 will have their names listed in the acknowledgements section of a publication!

Meet the Researcher


From the bottom of the earth to the ground underneath our feet, I've been studying the biology of water for almost ten years. My first research experience was during an undergraduate marine biology expedition with SEA Semester, where I looked at phytoplankton distributions in the Atlantic Ocean. During graduate school, I studied the ecology of microbes in glacial meltwater streams in Antarctica. After graduate school, I took a brief foray into biofuels research and researched how algae could be used to produce biodiesel. Now, I study the ecology of microbes in drinking water in the Pace Lab.

When I'm not geeking out on microbes, I like spending time rock climbing, running, and playing bridge with friends.

Endorsed by


This is a great project. Everything needed is in place: background experience, technology and laboratory setting...See more

Researcher/professor at University of Colorado


In September, 2013: Our lab was highlighted in the New York Times Science section!
On, Feb 9, I had a project interview with the SciFund team
A bit later, on Feb 19, the Boulder Blue Line Newspaper issued a press release on the project.
On Feb 19, I did an interview for the Society of General Microbiology's podcast.
Today, Feb 25, KGNU radio talked to me about the project in their "How on Earth" segment. Check it out at this link!

For a comprehensive list of references on this topic, check out my blog post, "What's not gray about hydraulic fracturing?"

Project Backers

emilygrahamjmeldrumasakaevalowelln1618lizpayton5adamheathcote716Becky Alexanderezweltylester21ericthomas1293Riina VuorikarichdkelleyV. Faye McNeillelizabethlatham1Brian Clarkmarcmnrpacemakopptgablehousejaneturner3572philippwickeyrappctedflynnjroundscksleeblackCindy WuLee StanishDenny Luanadamreed33449Smithytmbilinskisarahkoelkerkaelincawleyprestonahagenbukpalm42vandiverkace999jlab80TjjjcunderbishopiaLaura SirotBrian VoglerGrace Poldchanteuse87sbennago8447samkoyangicchong99jaredstanleydjvespercatherineaustinnnev66amycbmhskitteltheduke282esgordonhoarybatJRubanoteddyb139tristyvickKnelman