Mining operations can have substantial impact on the environment, resulting in long term disruption to ecosystems. To be permitted to operate, each mine is required to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA), that evaluates the current condition of a mine site, the impact a mining operation could have, and requires a closure plan for the mine stops operating and the land is reclaimed. EA is vital to the local community, a major stakeholder, because EA has direct implications for human and environmental health. Current approaches to EA are restricted to vegetation covers, which do not evaluate ecosystem-wide performance and therefore are not comprehensive.
Recent advances in genomic tools allow a broader assessment of environmental performance, such as ecosystem services provided by microbes, fungal communities and insects. One approach to determine the health of an ecosystem is to analyze the diversity of the soil microbial community using environmental DNA (eDNA).
The high-throughput nature of the method makes eDNA a sensitive and reliable tool to appraise ecosystem performance and ecosystem services. But, due to the presence of relic DNA, DNA from dead microorganisms that can persist in soils for years and can account for up to 80% of the total soil microbial DNA, biodiversity measurements of the microbial community can be confounding. The persistence of relic DNA renders the use of microbial biodiversity as a metric for EA less accurate.
A research team from Thompson Rivers University is developing a standardized protocol that can selectively analyze eDNA from living microorganisms. This protocol will provide a more accurate estimation of microbial diversity by increasing sensitivity and reliability, which would be useful to the mining industry, the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines, the BC Ministry of Environment, and Environment and Climate Change Canada. Combining microbial diversity assessments along with soil functionality information can provide an ecosystem-wide appraisal of environmental health.