Evaluating the impact of hydraulic fracturing on streams using microbial molecular signatures

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Department of Biological Sciences


Hydraulic fracturing (HF), commonly called "fracking", uses a mixture of high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals to fracture rocks, releasing oil and gas. This process revolutionized the U.S. energy industry, as it gives access to resources that were previously unobtainable and now produces two-thirds of the total natural gas in the United States. Although fracking has had a positive impact on the U.S. economy, several studies have highlighted its detrimental environmental effects. Of particular concern is the effect of fracking on headwater streams, which are especially important due to their disproportionately large impact on the health of the entire watershed. The bacteria within those streams can be used as indicators of stream health, as the bacteria present and their abundance in a disturbed stream would be expected to differ from those in an otherwise comparable but undisturbed stream. Therefore, this protocol aims to use the bacterial community to determine if streams have been impacted by fracking. To this end, sediment, and water samples, from streams near fracking (potentially impacted) and upstream or in a different watershed of fracking activity (unimpacted) must be collected. Those samples are then subjected to nucleic acid extraction, library preparation, and sequencing to investigate microbial community composition. Correlational analysis and machine learning models can subsequently be employed to identify which features are explanative of variation in the community, as well as identification of predictive biomarkers for fracking's impact. These methods can reveal a variety of differences in the microbial communities among headwater streams, based on the proximity to fracking, and serve as a foundation for future investigations on the environmental impact of fracking activities.

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Journal of Visualized Experiments