Molecular “Canaries” Warn When Soil Ecosystems Are Imperiled

"Molecular sentinels" providing warning signs in time for people to take action

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Bringing a canary to the coal mine as a sentinel is an old idea: the rapid breathing and small size of the canary meant that if carbon monoxide or other toxic gas levels got too high, it would show signs when the miners would still have time to take action and leave the mine safely.

In much the same way, Myrna Simpson, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Toronto, is looking for molecular sentinels to monitor and quantify the health of our environment and ecosystems. Simpson pioneered the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to analyze environmental samples to predict whether ecosystems are about to fail. With this rapid method, we may be able to detect environmental deterioration before it spreads, helping prevent and correct damage caused by climate change or urbanization.

One of her main research areas looks at soil samples from all over the world, creating molecular fingerprints that tell us about what is in our soil. Soils are complex mixtures that include molecules left behind by bacteria and bugs that live in it. The well-being of these soil ecosystems says a lot about the overall health of the environment. When they are stressed, it’s an early warning sign that action is needed. The environments Simpson studies include forests, farms, and the Arctic.

Another important factor is the balance of carbon being held in soils vs being released into the atmosphere, as atmospheric CO2 contributes to climate change. Currently soil contains twice the amount of carbon as the atmosphere, but this balance is threatened by urbanization.

Simpson explains that “there’s a very intricate carbon exchange between the atmosphere and soil carbon. With some of the modern threats with global warming and urbanization, this intricate balance is going to shift. We could potentially create a scenario where that soil carbon is then transformed into atmospheric CO2, and CO2 is a greenhouse gas and it may actually accelerate global warming. This is a big question. The uncertainty of this soil carbon, especially in highly sensitive areas such as the Arctic, where a lot of our carbon and soil was tied up in permafrost. Now that the permafrost is melting, this carbon is now available as a substrate (food) to bacteria and there is a potential for huge fluxes of CO2 into the atmosphere.”

Simpson works with the government to enact policy changes to transform how we monitor our environment and promote long term sustainable practices.


To learn even more about Prof. Simpson’s inspirations and life outside the lab, check our her Researchers in Reality interview! Curious to learn more about protecting our environment? Check out our Orange Chair Interviews with Prof. Sally Aitken on the health of our forests and Prof. Irena Creed on the contaminants in our water.

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Prof. Myrna Simpson is an Environmental Chemist at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She holds a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematical Sciences and PhD in Environmental Soil Chemistry from the University of Alberta. Prof. Simpson is also the Associate Director of the Environmental NMR Centre which is Canada’s only high field NMR facility solely dedicated to environmental research. Her research focuses on improving the understanding environmental processes at the molecular-level and connecting this information to the ecosystem-level. Prof. Simpson’s work includes topics such as developing an early warning system for detecting declining ecosystem health and climate change impacts on soil carbon storage. She has published over 130 journal articles and book chapters and recently edited the book “NMR spectroscopy: A versatile tool for environmental research.” Prof. Simpson’s research is supported by NSERC, the Krembil Foundation, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ontario Research Fund, Government agencies, and Industry. She has received a number of national and international awards for her pioneering work in Environmental Chemistry. In her spare time, Prof. Simpson enjoys spending time with her 5 year old twins, Sam and Sophie, who are big fans of the environment and NMR “rockets” (a.k.a. spectrometers).
Image credit: Ken Jones