The main research interest of the laboratory is microbial diversity in extreme environments. We apply a polyphasic approach, i.e., a complementary set of microbial physiology, chemical taxonomy, and non-growth based methods to assessing and monitoring the microbial communities. While we use pattern recognition based techniques, such as electrophoretic karyotyping and terminal restriction fragment polymorphism (t-RFLP), signature lipid biomarker analysis, and genomic sequencing to survey and characterize selected microbial ecosystems, we also very much rely on developing new isolation and cultivation techniques. Newly isolated intrinsic microorganisms are then physiologically screened in collaboration with our industrial partners for novel capabilities and microbial natural products.
Over the past several years, we have participated in the US Department of Energy Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) program that opened new, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for environmental sample collections. The Search for Ancient Microorganisms in Lake Baikal project targeted the microbial diversity present at Lake Baikal in Russia, the oldest and deepest continental lake in the world in south central Siberia. We collected water and soil samples from the Lake and surrounding hot springs, and participated in two expeditions of the international Baikal Drilling Project (BDRP; www.geol.sc.edu/SIL/bdp.htm). Over 2,200 strains were isolated, preserved, identified based on biochemical tests, and further characterized via whole-cell fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) analysis, genomic DNA fingerprinting, and restriction enzyme profiling. Also, a larger subset of isolates underwent electron microscopic cell morphology and fine structure investigations.
The projects Microbially Derived Agricultural Crop Protection Products and Screening of Botanical and Microbial Species Collected within the Territory of the Newly Independent States (NIS) of the Former Soviet Union for Pharmaceutical and Agrochemical Activities joins our proprietary fermentation methods with proprietary, high throughput assays of the industrial partners to screen the Lake Baikal microorganisms and thousands of plant extracts and filamentous fungi that were collected over a 16-year period following the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 for novel microbial natural products with agricultural and biomedical applications.
The most current bioprospecting project, Microbial Diversity for Novel Biotechnology Applications will develop a multi-year program for the systematic seasonal collection of microbial diversity in the extreme environments of Kamchatka, Russia (www.uga.edu/kamchatka/general.html).
Of the many spin-off ideas that result from bioprospecting, let us only mention two: A NATO Collaborative Linkage Grant provides the seed money for a feasibility study. The project objective is to introduce enzyme coding sequences from extremophilic microorganisms into major crop plants for a post-harvest modification of the crop and other plant materials through heat activation of these enzymes during storage. In another project we plan to generate patterned metallized surface layers or nanofilms using the crystallized protein surface layer (S-layer) of bacteria and archaea. These new materials will offer challenging opportunities for biology-based layout of electronic circuits, for the manufacturing of nanodevices, microreaction and new catalysis systems, highly selective nanofilters, nanoscale sensors, and for numerous biomedical, biotechnology, and bioremediation applications.