Science and Engineering

Rice University

Carrie Masiello, Matthew Bennett, Joff Silberg, George Bennett
Houston, TX
$1,000,000
June 2015

Microbes drive processes in the Earth system far exceeding their physical scale, mediating significant fluxes in the global carbon and nitrogen cycles.  Microbial behavior also affects soil development, water quality and crop yields.  The tools of synthetic biology have the potential to significantly improve our understanding of microbes in the Earth system; however, these tools have not yet seen wide laboratory use because synthetically programmed microbes are hard to deploy into many Earth materials, the vast majority of which are not transparent and are heterogeneous (soils, sediments and biomass).  A team at Rice University proposes to develop a new class of volatile gas reporters that will allow examination of biological processes in the Earth system using synthetically crafted microbes.  As proof of concept, they propose to study how soil environmental parameters (moisture, nutrient status, mineralogy, structure and temperature) influence microbial cell-cell communication and the production of proteins that transform soil organic matter and affect its stability.  Increasing evidence points to the importance of intercellular signaling in controlling microbial metabolism in populations that generate large fluxes in the global carbon and nitrogen cycles.  This includes three microbial processes (methanogenesis, denitrification and respiration) that play major roles in maintaining the Earth’s greenhouse.

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