"Our basic approach is to exploit this genomic sequence through the use of DNA microarrays to identify the genes that are regulated in response to environmental changes," Ferry explains. Researchers in the consortium also plan to supplement this approach with genetic and bioinformatic techniques used in genomics research and with enzyme techniques used in proteomics research. The consortium's research on proteins is an outgrowth of the NSF-funded Penn State Center for Microbial Structural Biology, which Ferry also directs. Daniel Jones, a senior scientist and the director of the Penn State Mass Spectroscopy Facility, will assist consortium researchers in their studies of cellular proteins with the analysis of two-dimensional gel-electrophoresis patterns.
"By exploring the metabolic diversity of our model organism we hope to discover novel enzymes and proteins with potential uses in biotechnology," Ferry says. The consortium's model organism and others like it, which produce methane, are ancient microbes whose direct ancestors are thought to have evolved at the time of the origin of life. "One expected outcome of the project is a more thorough understanding of the origin and early evolution of life--a goal that dovetails with those of the Penn State Center for Astrobiology, of which our lab is a member," Ferry comments. "In addition, anaerobic microbial food chains are essential links in the global carbon cycle, annually producing nearly a billion tons of methane--a potent greenhouse gas--so a better understanding of this process will have global environmental significance."