Grand challenges, national lab-style

The W.R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a Department of Energy-sponsored national scientific user facility, is seeing early promise from its two scientific "grand challenges" that have been investigating enigmas in microbiology and biogeochemistry.

The grand challenges are innovative, multidisciplinary projects on which scientists from more than 20 institutions collaborate. The projects are anchored by EMSL, based at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

"Results could show how microbes and biological processes can be used to address currently intractable issues in environmental remediation, saving the nation hundreds of millions of dollars and reducing risk to people and to the environment," according to EMSL Director Allison Campbell. The work, she added, also will shed light on natural energy transfer processes.

One of the challenges, led by Washington University biology professor Himadri Pakrasi and PNNL laboratory fellow David Koppenaal, is investigating the biology of membrane proteins in cyanobacteria, important microorganisms involved in photosynthesis in the world's oceans.

Pakrasi, speaking Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, announced that his team had already, in just six months, sequenced and annotated a cyanobacterium important in understanding how environmental conditions influence key carbon fixation processes in an organism.

The other challenge, led by PNNL laboratory fellows and chief scientists John Zachara and Jim Fredrickson, has begun to map out how subsurface metal-reducing bacteria interact with and transfer electrons to the mineral surfaces on which they live. Zachara reported Friday that this grand challenge eventually "will provide an unprecedented, detailed view of how organisms engage with mineral surfaces to exchange energy and electron density as required for life function."

Campbell ci

Contact: Bill Cannon
DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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