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Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Program

About the Program

The overarching goal of the Subsurface Biogeochemical Research (SBR) program is to advance a predictive understanding of the biogeochemical structure and function of subsurface environments to enable systems-level environmental prediction and decision support. SBR supports a wide range of research activities to advance the development of fully coupled models of subsurface environmental processes. These models incorporate metabolic modeling of microbial processes; molecular-scale understanding of geochemical stability, speciation, and biogeochemical reaction kinetics; and diagnostic signatures of the system response at varying spatial and temporal scales. State-of-science understanding codified in models provides the basis for testing hypotheses, guiding experimental design, integrating scientific knowledge on multiple environmental systems into a common framework, and translating this information to support informed decision making and policies. Critical to SBR’s mission is a better understanding of how the behavior and interactions of contaminants, carbon, and nutrients affect their mobility, reactivity, and stability in complex subsurface environments that encompass the vadose and saturated zones and key interfaces between ground and surface waters. A priority for the SBR program is to develop genome-enabled biogeochemical models of the multiscale structure and function of watersheds, which are key components of terrestrial ecosystems.

The SBR program and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) program constitute the Environmental System Science (ESS) activity within the Climate and Environmental Sciences Division (CESD). The overarching goal for ESS is to advance a robust predictive understanding of terrestrial ecosystems extending from “bedrock to tree-tops” and from global to molecular scales through an iterative cycle of model-driven experimentation and observation. SBR and TES program managers work closely together to coordinate these two separate programs to advance their shared goal of developing a holistic understanding of terrestrial ecosystems to address DOE’s energy and environmental missions.

Why the Program's Research is Important

The subsurface environment, which encompasses the vadose and saturated zones, is a heterogeneous, geologically complex domain. Believed to contain a large percentage of Earth's biomass in the form of microorganisms, the subsurface is a dynamic zone where important biogeochemical cycles work to sustain life. Actively linked to the atmosphere and biosphere through the hydrologic and carbon cycles, the subsurface serves as a storage location for much of Earth's fresh water. Coupled hydrological, microbiological, and geochemical processes occurring within the subsurface environment are now well recognized as responsible for the local and regional fluxes of carbon and nutrients as well as the fate and transport of anthropogenic contaminants. These processes also play a vital role in the formation of soil, economically important fossil fuels, mineral deposits, and other natural resources. Understanding subsurface environments and their role in the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems is a critical component of CESD's goal to advance a predictive understanding of Earth systems in support of DOE's energy and environmental missions.

Leveraging Other DOE Assets

SBR advances fundamental understanding of environmental processes through a unique set of BER programs and user facilities. These include the related Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program, which studies carbon and nutrient cycling, as well as the Genomic Science program and the microbial genome sequencing efforts at the DOE Joint Genome Institute. Taking advantage of revolutionary, genome-enabled, and systems biology techniques promises a more mechanistic understanding of subsurface microbial metabolism affecting contaminant transport. The DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory supports an array of co-located experimental and computational capabilities for molecular-level research. Additionally, synchrotron light sources provide structural and chemical information often unavailable with conventional sources of X-rays.

SBR research also is leveraged with other program offices within the Office of Science:

Internal DOE and external programs complementing SBR research or actively leveraging SBR-funded activities include:

Funding Opportunities

The SBR program supports mission-oriented research performed by (1) integrated research programs (scientific focus areas) at national laboratories; (2) university researchers with multidisciplinary capabilities; and (3) university-based “exploratory” research for new concepts, tools, and approaches. Funding opportunities are posted at

See Funding Announcements for more details.


Submit Research Highlights

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Subsurface Biogeochemical-Related BER Research Highlights