As a Department of Energy national laboratory, you would expect Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to perform research in chemistry, physics and engineering in support of our energy, environmental and security missions.
You might be surprised, however, to learn that we also conduct biological research. In fact, DOE and PNNL have a long tradition of advancing and applying biological sciences to create renewable fuels, clean contaminated soil and improve human health.
DOE’s interest in biology dates back to the 1960s, when we wanted to understand the health impacts of above-ground nuclear tests. This led to programs focused on how human health and the environment were affected by exposure to radiation and other contaminants.
In the 1980s and ’90s, PNNL scientists studied how bacteria might be used to clean up contaminated soils, including at Hanford. They showed how a certain bacterium called Shewanella could reduce specific metals, such as iron, into a more readily remediable form by rearranging its proteins to bond with the metals. DOE also conceived, launched and completed the Human Genome Project.
Fast forward to the present and PNNL biologists are collaborating with plant scientists, chemical engineers and others to develop bio-based and bio-inspired fuels for a sustainable future. In one project, we are studying how photosynthesis in blue-green algae produces hydrogen in addition to the food the organism needs. By understanding and adapting this process, we hope to create a renewable energy source.
Other research explores the use of fungal organisms to convert biomass to fuels and chemicals. For example, scientists are using some fungi to produce lipids that can then be converted into biofuels, such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. In addition, fungal organisms are being used to produce organic acids that can serve as building blocks for biofuels or chemicals for things like renewable plastics. Many of these projects are housed in the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory, which is jointly operated by WSU Tri-Cities and PNNL.
PNNL microbiologists are studying the role of microbes and microbial communities in the ecology of soils and lakes — focusing on how these organisms sense and respond to their environment. One study involves Hot Lake near the Washington-Canada border. Researchers are investigating the lake’s microbial mats and their remarkable resilience to seasonal extremes in temperature and salinity. They hope to build on this knowledge to develop improved bioreactors for commercial applications.
Microbes also play an important role in the carbon cycle, a critical component of the climate system. For example, we are researching how microbial communities capture and store carbon dioxide. This improved understanding will be encoded in earth system models to study climate change and its impacts. We also are interested in understanding the impact of climate change, especially global warming, on the behavior of the community of microorganisms within important ecosystems.
In a study published last month, PNNL researchers found that microbes need vitamins to stay healthy, just like humans. By using a “mimic” that looks and acts like the bacteria’s natural vitamin and that can be tracked and measured in live cells, scientists will learn how microbes accumulate and use nutrients. This research could yield insights into how we might manipulate microbial communities to do useful things, such as capture carbon and create new fuels.
We also apply our biology expertise to health research. In one project, our scientists are using chemical imaging to develop a model of the microbial environment inside the human gut. This will shed light on how changes in bacteria affect gut health and overall human health. Changes in certain bacterial populations within the gut have been attributed to colon cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.
In an effort that builds on our earlier studies of the effects of low-dose radiation, scientists from PNNL and Oregon State University are assessing cancer risk from pollutants in diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke. They used computational techniques, in tandem with lab experiments, to more quickly analyze the immediate genetic response of skin cells of exposed mice and then employed statistics to determine the likelihood of those cells becoming cancerous.
We recently formed a joint institute with the Oregon Health and Science University to apply our integrated “omics” expertise to disease diagnosis and treatment. Integrated omics is scientific shorthand for fields such as genomics and proteomics that explore how genes and proteins affect function within organisms. These world-leading mass spectroscopy capabilities will allow us to measure and separate samples to find protein “biomarkers” that can indicate disease. This research may help doctors diagnose rare diseases that are often frustratingly difficult to identify, as well as better understand the risks facing our soldiers and emerging viral pandemics.
A well-known company used to boast “we bring good things to life.” At PNNL, we study life to do good things — like creating sustainable fuels, cleaning contaminated soils, capturing carbon and improving human health.
Steve Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly.