The Boston Herald
July 24, 2002 Wednesday ALL EDITIONS
HEADLINE: DOE funds microbe studies
BYLINE: By Jennifer Heldt Powell

Massachusetts researchers will get $ 23 million from the Department of Energy to study microbes in hopes of finding ways to clean the environment and produce energy in the bargain.

The grants are part of the department's $ 103 million Genomes to Life program, designed to learn lessons from nature and adapt them to solve such problems as pollution.

A collection of researchers at Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Partners HealthCare Systems Inc. will receive $ 15 million over five years to study three bacteria, including one that is responsible for a large part of the world's photosynthesis. A separate group led by University of Massachusetts at Amherst microbiologist Derek Lovely will get an $ 8.9 million three-year grant to study a family of microbes that has the potential to clean uranium from soil and produce electricity.

"This innovative research program offers biotechnology solutions that can help us produce clean energy, clean up the environment and make a significant contribution to (President Bush's) policy on climate change," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday.

"These microorganisms can be thought of as nano-machines," said George Church, a microbiologist who will lead the Harvard group.

Researchers know their genetic makeup, he said. "But we need to study the machines themselves . . . to learn how we can help the machine to do the right thing for humans and the ecosystem."

Microbes, such as bacteria, are most commonly known for causing illnesses, but they are everywhere in the environment, said Roberto Kolter, a Harvard microbiology professor who will work with Church. Despite their prevalence, little is known about how they function, he said.

Once their function is determined, the microbes may be used to do such things as clean up toxic waste dumps, he said.

"Bacteria can do it, but we don't know how to make bacteria do it better," Kolter said.

The Harvard researchers will study a simple blue-green algae involved in removing carbon dioxide - linked to global warming - from the atmosphere.

The researchers will also study a bacteria considered to be one of the most versatile bio-chemical factories on earth, examining its potential to handle a variety of toxic waste. And they plan to look at a third bacteria that is a known chemical scavenger.