Oregon State Has Big Plans for Study of Tiny Microbes

Cleaning up contaminated areas like the Portland Harbor Superfund site and the Umatilla Weapons Depot. Slowing global warming. Removing pesticides to improve water quality.

These are all gigantic endeavors, but ones that Oregon State University researchers believe can possibly be accomplished by the tiniest of organisms - microbes that just might also hold the key to life on Mars.

Subsurface microbes live below the Earth's surface in soil, mud and rock, and their potential to modify the Earth has only been recognized recently.

"Microorganisms below the subsurface play a major role in the cycles on earth," said Lewis Semprini, a professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. "It has only been in the past decade that it was recognized that deep subsurface microbes play a significant role in global cycles."

The work done by Semprini and others led to the Subsurface Biosphere Education Research initiative, one of six initiatives that were recently approved by OSU. All six support OSU's recently adopted strategic plan. The university is reallocating funds internally to provide seed funding for the initiatives.

In 1998, Semprini, and Dan Arp, chair of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, found that some types of bacteria that grow on butane gas have the ability to transform toxic wastes to harmless endproducts. Using microorganisms to clean up contamination could save billions of dollars, Semprini said.

In 2003, Martin Fisk, a professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, and other scientists discovered bacteria in a hole drilled more than 4,000 feet deep in volcanic rock on the island of Hawaii near Hilo. Fisk has said that the environment could be analogous to conditions on Mars and other planets.

"Under these conditions, microbes could live beneath any rocky planet," Fisk said at the time. "It would be conceivable to find life inside of Mars, within a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, or even on a comet containing ice crystals that gets warmed up when the comet passes by the sun." Semprini, Fisk and Arp are three of the principal investigators of the initiative proposal. The others are Peter Bottomley, professor in the Department of Microbiology; and David Myrold, professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Science.

Bottomley and Myrold study bacteria and fungi in coniferous forest ecosystems in the central Cascade Mountains at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. They also study nitrogen and carbon cycles.

The subsurface biosphere is an emerging area of study that connects the fields of microbiology, biotechnology, geochemistry, bioremediation (cleaning up contamination), bioengineering, agriculture, forestry, geology, oceanography, astrobiology and others.

One potential benefit is in the area of global warming. Subsurface microbes are part of the process that forms carbon dioxide and methane, contributing to global warming.

"Microbes may also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the subsurface, potentially playing a key role in slowing global warming," Semprini said.

Semprini said that the microbes also can help immobilize radioactive contaminants, such as uranium, in groundwater so these can be recovered or the transport slowed. They are also miniature chemical factories that have determined ways of producing mineral products with very uniform properties. For example, certain bacteria can produce magnetitic iron particles of very specific sizes that could result in much better magnetitic tapes.

This initiative will include faculty members from five colleges - Forestry, Agricultural Sciences, Science, Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and Engineering.

"Our ultimate goal is to create a Center of Excellence for Subsurface Biosphere Education and Research," Semprini said. "It has implications for a wide range of benefits, from environmental cleanup to a better understanding of soil processes. We want to create more synergy among faculty on campus so we can collaborate on large interdisciplinary projects."

Semprini said the key to the initiative is that work is already going on at OSU.

In 2001, the National Science Foundation awarded OSU a $2.6 million grant to form the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Program, a graduate student training program to focus on life below the earth's surface.

"There is a significant amount of research already going on and this is a way to get the researchers together and communicate," he said, adding that there will be a potential to offer seed research money for faculty to produce exploratory research findings needed for large interdisciplinary research proposals.

Semprini feels the structure of the Center will evolve over the course of the initiative, and the principal investigators all want the center to live beyond the five years of the initiative.

"We are going to add junior faculty members that fit strategic educational and research needs that have joint appointments between different colleges. This will permit us to increase the courses offered and get undergraduates involved in the research," he said, adding that increasing the diversity of graduate and undergraduate students is also a mission of the initiative.