Scientists team up for multiyear studies of microbial mysteries

May 18, 2005

RICHLAND, Wash., and ST. LOUIS -- The W.R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory (EMSL) at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will embark on two "grand challenges"-- innovative, multidisciplinary projects--to explore scientific enigmas in microbiology and biogeochemistry.

One, led by Washington University biology professor Himadri Pakrasi and PNNL laboratory fellow David Koppenaal, will investigate the biology of membrane proteins in cyanobacteria, important microorganisms involved photosynthesis in the world's oceans. The other, led by PNNL laboratory fellows and chief scientists John Zachara and Jim Fredrickson, is probing the fundamental question of how subsurface metal-reducing bacteria interact with and transfer electrons to the mineral surfaces on which they live.

More than two dozen researchers from 16 institutions will participate in the three- to- five-year studies, with a PNNL investment of $2 million a year for each grand challenge, or around $10 million for the life of the projects.

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

EMSL's unique and broad-ranging experimental and computational facilities are central to the approach for the projects.

"EMSL is already one of Department of Energy's most successful national user facilities," said Dr. Raymond L. Orbach, Director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, "so it is a fitting place to attempt such ambitious grand challenges, where we can pair large groups of our most talented scientists with our most sophisticated analytical tools to look at very specific and vexing scientific problems. We are hopeful that this approach will become a model for collaborative research at EMSL and other DOE facilities."

"We are bringing together international expertise to advance an area of science in ways that haven't been possible before," said Allison Campbell, EMSL director. "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."

The William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory ( 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 ( is a DOE Office of Science laboratory in Richland, Wash., 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, has a $650 million annual budget, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab's inception in 1965.

Washington University in St. Louis ( is a medium-sized, independent research university dedicated to challenging its faculty and students alike to seek new knowledge and greater understanding of an ever-changing, multicultural world. The university is counted among the world's leaders in teaching and research and draws students and faculty to St. Louis from all 50 states and more than 90 other nations. With 6,509 undergraduates and 5,579 graduate and professional students, as well as 1,384 part-time students, Washington University offers more than 90 programs and nearly 1,500 courses in a broad spectrum of traditional and interdisciplinary majors.

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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