Harvard Medical School consortium receives grant to harness microbe genomes for environment/energy

July 23, 2002

Boston, MA--Harvard Medical School, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Partners HealthCare, is today the recipient of a $15 million, five-year grant that will be used to study three bacteria each with unique properties important to the environment and energy production. Knowledge from this project may allow researchers to engineer microorganisms as miniature machines to clean toxic waste, consume carbon dioxide, and perform other environmental cleaning and energy production tasks. The grant is part of the Department of Energy's Genomes to Life Program, announced today, that is contributing $103 million in post-genomic research to six national laboratories, 16 universities and research hospitals, and four private research institutes.

"It's very exciting being part of such a truly interdisciplinary team applying computational biology and genomics to the urgent issues of global energy and ecology," says George Church, PhD, who will head the HMS consortium, and who is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Harvard/MIT Health Sciences & Technology, as well as the Director of the Lipper Center for Computational Genetics.

The HMS consortium will examine the bacteria Prochlorcoccus, Pseudomonas, and Caulobacter. Prochlorococcus, a simple blue-green algae, is involved in 40 percent of the photosynthesis on earth, removing from the atmosphere carbon dioxide--which is linked to global warming--and producing oxygen. Pseudomonas, while a member of a family of significant human pathogens, is also one of the most versatile bio-chemical factories on earth. It has more different chemical reactions that it can do than almost any other organism and could handle a variety of toxic waste. Caulobacter is known as a scavenger of compounds, especially in low concentrations of water.

The consortium includes Sallie Chisholm, PhD, MIT professor of biology and civil and environmental engineering, Martin Polz, PhD, MIT assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, Fred Ausubel, PhD, HMS professor of genetics, Roberto Kolter, PhD, HMS professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, and Raju Kucherlapati, PhD, HMS professor of genetics and the scientific director of the Harvard Medical School-Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics.

The researchers, using the previously defined genomes, or genetic make-up, of each organism, will set out to define each organism's proteome, or the unique interactions of their proteins. The scientists will also examine each organism's ecology, or the interrelationships of the organisms to their environments. By studying both systems, investigators will learn how to further engineer each microorganism to handle hazardous chemical waste and other environmental concerns as well as for possible energy sources.

"These microorganisms can be thought of as nano-machines," says Church. "By knowing their genomes, as we do, we have a linear computer tape, or code, that in principle tells us how to assemble the machines. But we need to study the machines themselves, to move beyond a one-dimensional understanding to a three-dimensional view to learn how we can help the machine to do the right thing for humans and the ecosystem."

The 10-year goal of the Department of Energy's Genomes to Life Program is to make advances in systems biology, computation and technology that will contribute to increased sources of biological-based energy, help understand the earth's carbon cycle, and design ways to enhance carbon capture and lead to cost-effective ways to clean up the environment.

Harvard Medical School

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