Hug Research Group: The Relationship of Microbes in Contaminated Sites & Advice on Environmental Change
Research by: Sophie Campbell, Written by: Jacqueline Omdara
For more information about Laura Hug and the biological research the Hug Research Group does at the University of Waterloo, check out their website and email below!
Q: Can you explain the focus of your research in a few sentences?
A: I study microbes living in contaminated or otherwise disturbed sites, like landfills, mine tailings, and agricultural soil. My research group tries to determine how the contaminants are impacting the microbes, and, importantly, how the microbes may be impacting the contaminants. We look for organisms that can degrade or transform the contaminants that could be used as remediation tools.
Q: What motivated you to go into research (and specifically into biology)?
A: I liked science early and was drawn to genetics in high school. In undergrad, I studied an eclectic program of science courses, eventually focusing on molecular biology. I call myself a microbiologist now, but I didn’t start studying bacteria until my PhD. I like biology for having a lot of scope for discovery — there is so much diversity of life that we don’t know about.
Q: What do you find to be the most interesting aspect of your research?
A: We work with big datasets and complex communities, and I really like the process of taking an ocean of data and starting to make sense of it, to connect organisms and substrates and interactions between community members, to start to understand what is happening at that site, under those conditions.
Q: In simplified terms, what are the steps you take in your research to determine the presence and role of micro-organisms in a given environment?
A: We go to a site, take a sample (could be a scoop of soil, or filter some landfill leachate (smelly!) onto a filter) and take it back to the lab. We extract DNA, RNA, and/or proteins from this sample, and then sequence them — a few weeks later, we have tons of data to process. Then we use computational pipelines to assemble genomes, identify function, determine activity, and start to pull apart the biologically relevant characteristics of the community we sampled. We can identify who was there, who was most abundant, and who they are — sometimes finding new organisms on the tree of life. From there, we can figure out what these microorganisms are capable of doing in the environment, see what roles they are playing.
Q: In your opinion, what steps (if any) should be taken to improve the conditions (for accelerating degradation or for improving environmental health in general) at waste facilities and other contaminated sites?
A: Containment is key — the smaller and more stable the footprint of a landfill or other contaminated site the better. If well contained, then remediation is easier too — it can be more focused, with less impact on adjacent or connected environments. Every site is different, so the approach to accelerate degradation or improve environmental health can vary. Lots of sites have initiatives to re-green or plant with native pollinators, which helps ecosystem health while we figure out a remediation option. It’s multi-faceted. Also, some microbes will degrade a contaminant into something more toxic, or that will move faster in the system — it’s not always a good thing, so those complexities have to be managed too.
Q: What do you think is the greatest environmental challenge we face as a society?
A: Our extreme consumption. It drives the rising plastic pollution around the globe, the shrinking space for landfill refuse, the overall impact on ecological resources. Canada is one of the worst developed nations for waste production per capita — we could be a lot less lazy about how we consume and what waste we generate, and a lot more invested in lowering our footprints.
Q: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the number and extent of changes needed to correct our trajectory on this planet? If so, how do you counteract that feeling?
A: I do. I think it is a big and complex problem, and one that is difficult to feel agency over without being overwhelmed. I am shifting my research program from a discovery-based direction to focusing on methane emission mitigation and plastics degradation, as two of the major problems we’re facing that I think could have microbial solutions. I’m well placed based on my expertise and my current position to try to tackle some of these issues, and I don’t know how I could look my kids in the face if I didn’t try.
Q: Do you have any advice for young people trying to enact positive environmental change in our world?
Every little bit helps, but we are now in a scenario where, realistically, it will take significant political and economic pressure to move the dial. So voting matters, more than it ever has. Voting with your ballots, but also with your money. Being loud. Organizing events. In your life, try to live true to your principles — reduce waste, reduce consumption. But make the people in positions to make change take notice. Make this their priority.
Q: Finally, for our followers/readers who are interested in research or graduate studies: are you open to co-ops or new graduate students?
A: My recruiting varies depending on when grants are awarded and what we have going on in the lab. If you are interested, I’m always happy to hear from students. Advice for approaching any prof for a position — include a bit about why you are interested in their work, and your CV and transcript. It helps distinguish your request from the many spam requests we get per week.