The field of microbiology, pulsing with new excitement, has become a magnet for scientists from such varied disciplines as earth and planetary sciences, evolutionary biology, environmental microbiology and ecology, and synthetic chemistry. Researchers are converging on projects ranging from probing the history of the earth to creating novel natural products by harnessing biosynthetic pathways of soil bacteria.
“Microbiology has undergone a renaissance,” says Richard Losick, the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology and leader of a proposed initiative to establish a new interdepartmental program in microbiology. “It seemed like a field that was becoming passé, but in the last decade it has become extremely exciting.”
A Microbial Sciences Symposium on Saturday, April 17, is designed to showcase this excitement and spark interest in the initiative (which has not yet been formally authorized). The free symposium will be held in Lecture Hall C of the Science Center, from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Two speakers will give talks on each of four themes: “Evolution and Diversity,” “A Microbial Planet,” “Systems Biology and Communication,” and “Environment and Health.”
The Microbial Sciences Initiative would establish a center for a regular seminar series for people of diverse backgrounds. Losick says the program would also provide support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to do interdepartmental research. Moreover, he adds, “it would create a community linking people in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with those across the river at Harvard Medical School, and it would make an attractive environment for recruiting new faculty.
Why such surging enthusiasm for the study of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, yeasts, algae, fungi and protozoans? Several reasons, according to Losick. For one, DNA sequencing enables scientists to decipher the genetic blueprints of many organisms, gaining fresh insights into their structure and function. For another, he says, “microbes are the greatest repository of genetic variety on earth.” Losick adds that bacteria are a rich system for studying problems of cell biology.
Moreover, chemists’ interest in natural products is leading them toward microbes, which are “champion” producers, says Losick. “What people are doing now is isolating chunks of bacterial DNA from the soil, cloning it, and looking for biosynthetic pathways that make novel natural products,” he says. “From previous examples, these molecules – such as kinases and signal transduction pathways – turn out to be very useful in basic research.”
The idea for the initiative sprouted from a conversation Losick had with Daniel Schrag, from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Colleen Cavanaugh, from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; and Roberto Kolter, from the Harvard Medical School.”We realized we had a great deal in common, and that there is a great opportunity to link up researchers in these different departments,” says Losick. “The idea is that we could promote interdisciplinary research, and we could recruit exciting microbiologists and they could work at the interfaces of different departments.”
If this sounds a bit hazy, speakers at the April 17 symposium will show through their work how the synergy of multidisciplinary microbial studies plays out.