Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by Richard Saltus

April 14th, 2006

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.

"One of the reasons for the recent excitement in microbiology is that it has become a catalyst for cross disciplinary research," says Richard Losick, the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology. "The study of microbes, which account for the bulk of the world’s biomass and are its richest repository of biodiversity, requires the application of approaches from mathematics, engineering, geology, ecology, bioinformatics, chemistry, molecular biology and evolutionary biology and other fields. Conversely, microbes have become a rich source of fascinating problems for scientists who don’t traditionally see themselves as microbiologists."

A Microbial Sciences Symposium on Saturday, April 29, is designed to showcase this excitement and spark interest in the initiative. The free symposium will be held in Lecture Hall C of the Science Center, from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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, 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."

Speakers at the April 29 symposium will show through their work how the synergy of multidisciplinary microbial studies plays out.

Symposium Program