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Aquatic Ecology Laboratory

The Aquatic Ecology Lab (AEL) is uniquely designed to study the impacts of different energy production strategies on aquatic ecosystems. The AEL was originally constructed in 1972 to study the effects of cooling water discharges from nuclear power plants. As the DOE mission has expanded over the past few decades, the AEL has undergone a number of modernization efforts to adapt to experimental needs. The AEL provides its scientists the opportunity to develop and pilot new technologies scaling from the lab bench, to 22-m artificial streams, to field implementation. This scheme gives aquatic scientists the ability to study the impacts of human activities related to hydropower, bioenergy, nuclear, and coal industries on climate, biodiversity, nutrient and contaminant dynamics, hydrology, and ecosystem function.

The 8,000 square foot AEL contains eight artificial stream beds that scientists use to study nutrient and contaminant dynamics in simulated riverine ecosystems. Water from nearby creeks flows through the streams where conditions can be modulated by researchers to better understand how contaminants are transported in waterways and transferred through food webs and to test mitigation techniques before implementing them in the field.

Embedded within the AEL is the Environmental Toxicology Laboratory (ETL), which is a DOECAP- (Department of Energy Consolidated Audit Program) accredited lab dedicated to quantifying the effects of toxicants on natural systems. The ETL lab is fully staffed and equipped to conduct compliance-based and experimental toxicity tests with freshwater, marine, and terrestrial organisms. 

Adjacent to the ETL is the Bioindicator lab, which has microscopy, imaging, spectroscopic and flow cytometry equipment focused on assessing biological diversity, productivity and the biological, physiological, and reproductive health of organisms. This lab is equipped to support standard fisheries and aquatic organismal studies that include fish age and growth using fish scales, otoliths, or other structures. The lab also supports several field-based capabilities, such as radio-telemetry, mark-recapture, and novel methods to monitor both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. Recently acquired capabilities through this lab include environmental DNA (eDNA) and ecophysiology (e.g., respirometry). Overall, the Bioindicator lab supports the common goal of development and application of integrative methods to monitor and promote biodiversity, from genes to ecosystems.

The AEL also includes Analytical Chemistry labs focused on the quantification of nutrients, contaminants, and other water chemistry parameters (e.g., chlorophyll, specific conductance, pH, dissolved oxygen).  Historically, mercury and radiological isotopes have been the most important legacy contaminants on the Oak Ridge Reservation. As such, an entire lab is dedicated to the measurement of mercury and methylmercury, and gamma-emitting radioisotopes in water, sediment, and biological samples. The laboratory is also equipped to analyze nutrients (dissolved and total nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations) in water and biological samples using an automated spectrophotometer.

AEL scientists collaborate with material scientists, sensor scientists, imaging, computation and advanced manufacturing experts, and industry partners to develop new, cross-cutting tools and approaches to accelerate aquatic ecology research. For example, through these collaborations, we have been able to:

  • conduct materials characterizations of biological materials such as otoliths and fish tissue and develop technologies to measure stress to organisms, quantify biological productivity, and biological diversity.
  • develop an imaging system that uses artificial intelligence algorithms to automate the identification of aquatic organisms, such as macroinvertebrates and larval fish.
  • develop a biomimetic model fish that simulates the material properties of fish tissues to provide a better understanding of how fishes respond to stressors like blade strike during downstream passage through hydropower turbines without the need for live animal testing.  
  • design and test novel methods for direct analysis of water quality in the field, including development of an aquatic drone equipped with water quality sensors to map water quality in streams and rivers at a high spatial resolution. 

Aquatic Ecology Research

Contaminant Effects on Ecosystems

ORNL researchers study the effects of energy use on waterways and develop solutions to limit water pollution. This segment discusses how scientists assess contaminant effects on ecosystems.

Environmental DNA

ORNL researchers study the effects of energy use on waterways and develop solutions to limit water pollution. Environmental DNA is among the tools scientists use to assess biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Ecosystem Assessment Using Drones

ORNL researchers study the effects of energy use on waterways and develop solutions to limit water pollution. This segment demonstrates how scientists use drones to assess biodiversity and ecosystem health.