IGERT: Earth's Subsurface Biosphere:
Coupling of Microbial, Geophysical, and Geochemical Processes

Director: David Myrold
Lead Institution: Oregon State University

News about the program:

Provost's Subsurface Biosphere Initiative

The Universe Beneath Our Feet

Participating Universities:
Oregon State University
Portland State University

Participating National Laboratories:
Department of Energy (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
DOE Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory
DOE Oakridge National Laboratory

The biosphere is usually thought of as plants and animals near the Earth's surface, but the Earth's habitable zone extends to depths of hundreds or thousands of meters.

The Earth's subsurface biosphere is composed mostly of bacteria, and collectively these bacteria may have a mass equivalent to that of all life in the near-surface biosphere. The emerging, interdisciplinary study of the subsurface biosphere could solve major environmental, agricultural, and industrial problems, and lead to products that will improve human health and prosperity.

The key to success in this field will be to understand the links between subsurface microbiology and Earth's physical and chemical environment and processes. Scientists with this understanding will solve problems such as:

  • transforming toxic waste into harmless by products
  • providing safer drinking water
  • increasing mining efficiency
  • increasing flow of oil from wells
  • confining nuclear waste in storage facilities
  • improving soil
  • reutilization of animal and human wastes,and
  • understanding the impact of the subsurface biosphere on our planet.

To prepare graduate students for these challenges we will coordinate the mentoring of students by internationally recognized engineers, microbiologists, geologists, oceanographers, geochemists, soil scientists, and hydrologists.

Students' preparation will be broadened with a new subsurface biosphere integrated minor with five related components. Some of these are:

  • a group process training effort
  • courses that link microbial with physical and chemical processes from molecular to global scales
  • international and national internships
  • field programs and symposia

Ethical and cultural issues related to subsurface science, bioengineering, and the environment will be included in courses, seminars and workshops.