About SBI Research:

The Subsurface Biosphere and Engineered Environmental Processes

Diagram of SBI research areas.
Link to Sustainable Natural Resources Link to Global Chemical Cycles

Engineered Environmental Processes

Engineered environmental processes play a major role in maintaining clean water, air, soil, and sediments in our state, as well as cleaning up from the legacy of poor environmental practices. Organic chemicals poured or spread on the ground and now in the subsurface have left a legacy of contaminated sites that pose risk to human health and the environment. Examples include pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, cleaning agents and degreasers, and additives to gasoline. Some of these compounds move rapidly through the subsurface, resulting in the contamination of our groundwater resources. Examples of affected areas relevant to Oregon are the US Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford site, the Umatilla Weapons Depot, and the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. Subsurface microorganisms play a dominant role in the transformation and the breakdown of these organic compounds, both under natural “intrinsic” conditions as well as under engineered conditions of bioremediation. The potential for microbial transformations to help clean-up contaminated sites has been the subjected of several National Research Council studies: Alternatives for Groundwater Cleanup (1994), Innovations in Groundwater and Soil Cleanup: From Concept to Commercialization, and Groundwater and Soil Cleanup (1997), and Groundwater and Soil Cleanup Improving Management of Persistent Contaminant (1999).

Diagram of a groundwater bioremediation plan.


The use of microorganisms is likely to save billions of dollars in the cost of cleaning up subsurface contamination. Subsurface microorganisms play a key role in the breakdown of toxic compounds to form non-toxic products. The ability of treating subsurface contamination in-situ using subsurface microorganisms, instead of bringing them to the surface for treatment and disposal can provide a huge cost savings, as well being a more sustainable way of dealing with these problems.


Discoveries related to nanotechnology in the 21st Century are going to play an important role in economic growth in Oregon. Nanotechnology means the building of devices by manipulation or placement of atoms and molecules. Subsurface microorganisms can be considered biochemical factories with the ability to create mineral particles at the nano scale. Nanoparticles may have distinct advantages over particles produced by physical and chemical methods because biologically produced nanoparticles are more uniform in size and shape, and can have specific physical and chemical properties based on environmental and nutrient growth conditions. Three examples of related research areas are:

  1. The development of nanoparticles as catalysts for the transformation of environmental pollutants
  2. The fabrication of nanoporous materials for capturing environmental pollutants or the enrichments of valuable chemical products, such as drugs.
  3. The development of biosensors, using DNA chips and other devices that use gene expression to monitor exposure to environmental contaminants or toxins introduced to the environment.

Read more about OSU research in this area:

Introduction | Featured Projects | Researchers | Publications