Grand challenges, national lab-style

Multi-institutional efforts to understand microbial biology and biogeochemistry converge at DOE’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

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 cited the early results of the three- to- five–year projects as a sign of the approach's success. The scientific grand challenges, she said, are designed to marshal time, talent and instrumentation to look in unprecedented detail at vexing problems that could not be approached by a single team working at a single institution.

"We are bringing together international expertise to advance an area of science in ways that haven't been possible before," Campbell said. "A combination of world-class minds, methods and capabilities uniquely positions PNNL and EMSL to deliver answers to the grand challenge questions these teams are addressing."

J. Michael Kuperberg, Acting Director for DOE's Environmental Remediation Sciences Division in the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, defined EMSL's scientific grand challenges as "complex, large-scale scientific and engineering problems with broad scientific and environmental or economic impacts whose solution can be advanced by applying high-performance scientific techniques and resources."

PNNL is investing roughly $2 million a year for each grand challenge, or around $10 million for the life of the projects, which take advantage of access their investigators have to suites of advanced analytical instrumentation and computational facilities housed at EMSL.

Investigators expect the grand challenges to yield new information on issues ranging from how energy and nutrient transport occurs between microbes and their environment, to how microorganisms influence soil and water chemistry, with potential applications that include groundwater remediation, carbon sequestration and energy generation.

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The William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (www.emsl.pnl.gov) is located on the PNNL campus. Since its inception in 1997, the 200,000-square-foot facility has played host to more than 5,500 visiting scientists, professors and other individuals who requested use of the facility's resources through a peer-review proposal process. These individuals--commonly referred to as "users"--come to EMSL from academia, other research and development laboratories and industry.

PNNL (www.pnl.gov) is a DOE Office of Science laboratory that solves complex problems in energy, national security, the environment and life sciences by advancing the understanding of physics, chemistry, biology and computation. PNNL employs more than 4,000 staff, has an annual budget of more than $700 million, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab's inception in 1965.


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