Department of Energy - FY 2001 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science organization in the world, comprised of more than 43,000 members, appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 budget for the Department of Energy's (DOE) research programs.

The ASM represents scientists who work throughout academic, governmental and industrial institutions worldwide. Microbiologists are involved in research to improve human health and the environment. The ASM's mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of basic life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health, and for economic and environmental well being.

Many DOE research programs share the common goal of producing and conserving energy in environmentally responsible ways. Areas of research include basic research projects in microbiology, as well as, extensive development of biotechnological systems to produce alternative fuels and chemicals, to recover fossil fuels, to improve the refinement process of fossil fuels, to remediate environmental problems, and to reduce wastes and pollution.

The ASM believes the President's budget request for DOE's science programs is encouraging. The Administration's proposed budget for FY 2001 requests $18.9 billion for the DOE overall. Included in that request is $3.15 billion for programs supported by the Office of Science. The following comments focus on research supported by the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) and Basic Energy Sciences (BES) programs and make recommendations related to genomics, climate change, carbon management, bioremediation, microbial cell program, and basic energy science. Federal investment in these programs will sponsor basic research to find solutions to environmental and energy problems while maintaining U.S. scientific leadership worldwide.

Microbial Genomics:

The Microbial Genome Program (MGP) within the Office of Biological and Environmental Research was developed in 1994 as a complement to the Human Genome Program. This program has provided the full genome sequences of most of the non-pathogenic microorganisms that are now available. DOE is providing outstanding leadership in this major science success story. The Administration has proposed $14 million for FY 2001, and has consolidated its microbial genome efforts into this highly successful program. ASM strongly endorses this request.

Continued growth in the DOE MGP is critical to maintaining U.S. leadership in this important field. This research should include not only the genome sequencing but also the functional analysis of those genomes, the associated software and databases to fully and efficiently analyze the information, and development of new technologies to help characterize the genes of unculturable microbes in nature.

Genome sequencing is revolutionizing the scientific approach to understanding biology and is providing critical new insights. Genome sequence information provides clues into how we can design biotechnological processes that will function in extreme conditions, including ones that will generate fuels and help clean up the environment, as well as help us understand the origin of and exchange of genes among organisms. With each new genome that is sequenced we gain a greater understanding of microbial evolution and diversity. Also, each sequenced genome has revealed how much more science needs to learn. Thirty percent of each genome has no known function, yet appears to contain functional genes. This presents a great challenge for scientists to unravel the genomes' significance for understanding microbial evolution and the potential for biotechnological developments.

The DOE has established the necessary peer review and advisory program to the MGP to ensure that the microorganisms selected for sequencing will yield the greatest scientific informational benefits and that the research is of the highest quality. The results of these initiatives will be readily available to other scientists, through the use of on-line databases. All genome sequences supported by the MGP are available to the public and as such contribute to further scientific exploration.

Climate Change Technology Initiative (CCTI):

In 1997, the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol and committed to reduce the nation's carbon dioxide emissions to eight percent below 1990 levels. The Administration proposed a government-wide Climate Change Technology Initiative (CCTI) to implement this commitment and to find solutions to problems associated with greenhouse gasses. The President's budget for DOE proposes $35.8 million within the Office of Science (SC) for this initiative. Biological research is slated to receive a significant boost from this initiative. As part of the CCTI, DOE will support microbiological research on carbon management science including basic studies on microorganisms that consume carbon, and on other microbes that assist in the development of carbon free energy sources. Combating global warming is critical and these programs will make significant contributions to the long-term battle to maintain the quality of our atmosphere.

An important component of the CCTI program in BER addresses the basic phenomena and strategies for managing the carbon budget of our terrestrial and ocean systems. Biological sequestration of carbon, both its capture and stability of the biologically produced carbon forms, has major effects on the global CO2 and methane concentrations. Furthermore, stored carbon such as soil carbon, has beneficial effects on plant growth, water retention in soil, and soil structure. DOE's program in ocean sciences, including carbon sequestration and nitrogen cycle effects on carbon and coastal productivity are also targeted to relevant scientific needs. All of these programs are also distinctive in bringing the tools of molecular biology to terrestrial and oceanic environmental sciences.

The President's budget proposes an increase from $5.8 million in FY 2000 to $7.9 million in FY 2001 for this phase of the CCTI program. A majority of this budget would be devoted to genome sequencing of microorganisms important to carbon sequestion and hydrogen production. ASM strongly supports this enhanced effort and believes that new understanding will be derived that will aid decisions about management of the global carbon cycle, and new advances in biology will be discovered that can reduce CO2, convert carbon to useful products, and stabilize fixed carbon.

Bioremediation:

DOE's proposed bioremediation research is largely contained in the Natural and Accelerated Bioremediation Program (NABIR). This is a well-coordinated, comprehensive research program comprised of seven interrelated elements. The quality of the research has been outstanding and probably the best example of basic research advances on this challenging topic area that is supported by the federal government. In view of this success and the importance of the topic to the U.S., ASM is concerned with the proposed decrease in the NABIR budget from $25 million in FY 2000 to $21 million in 2001. Instead we believe important benefits can be achieved with a budget of $30 million which is more consistent with the original $40 million plan for the program.

Bioremediation scientists are searching for cost-effective technologies to improve current remediation methods to clean up DOE's contaminated sites. This research will lead to new discoveries into reliable methods of bioremediation of metals and radionuclides as well as organic pollutants in soils and groundwater. The NABIR program is unique in that it supports the basic research that is needed to understand this technology to more reliably develop the practical applications for cost-effective cleanup of pollutants at DOE sites.

Microbial Cell Project:

DOE proposes to continue its leadership in microbial genomics by extending its research program to the next frontier made possible from the genomics information base, that is to understand in a comprehensive manner the complete workings of a free-living cell. Information on all genes and proteins and the network that controls which are expressed under particular environmental conditions is now within range. This will help us understand what is necessary for ecological success and how to better model, predict and manage the important processes these organisms carry out in nature or in energy processing reactors. ASM strongly supports this new initiative and the FY 2001 request of $9.7.

Basic Energy Sciences:

The Administration's requested funding level for the Office of Basic Energy Sciences is $888.1 million for FY 2001. BES funds important microbiological basic research programs through the Energy Biosciences Division. ASM supports the proposed funding increase from $29 million to $33.7 million for this Division.

This program focuses on research in both microbiological and plant sciences that will lead to new discoveries in producing energy without risk to the environment and finding effective methods of cleaning up existing contamination. Programs on Microbial Cell Research and Carbon Sequestration under the CCTI initiative are important components of the proposed program and are endorsed by ASM.

Other microbiological research supported by this program includes biotechnology related to energy, biofuel production, and technologies to aid in the restoration of contaminated environmental sites. More basic research on hydrogen, methane, and ethanol production is needed if we are to meet future energy needs and to have fuels that will minimize environmental pollution. The ASM supports the proposed funding level for this program and urges Congress to allocate these funds for the Energy Biosciences.

Conclusion:

DOE's research programs help to keep the United States at the forefront of scientific discovery and competitive in the world marketplace. The ASM encourages Congress to maintain its commitment to the Department of Energy research programs to maintain the United States' leadership in these vital industries and continue our commitment to a strong basic science program.

The debate over the effect of greenhouse gases on the environment is complex. While some may disagree about the severity of the greenhouse problem, most will agree that the reduction of industrial gases emitted into the atmosphere will provide more long term environmental benefits than continuing to increase the rate these gases enter our atmosphere. In Kyoto, the United States committed to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. DOE's basic research programs support research that investigates solutions to existing and future environmental and energy problems. Through the leadership of DOE's basic research science in clean fuels, and environmental processes, new technologies will be developed to enable the U.S. to be better prepared to meet environmental problems and the economic challenges associated with them.

In summary, the ASM makes the following recommendations:

  • The ASM believes that it is imperative for the United States to maintain a strong science budget that supports basic research.
  • The ASM recommends that Congress provide the $14 million requested for the Microbial Genome Program.
  • The ASM supports DOE's CCTI programs in BER and BES and the proposed budget.
  • The ASM recommends $30 million be appropriated for the NABIR program to provide the funds necessary to sustain a balanced program of bioremediation research on chemicals important to DOE site cleanup. The excellence and importance of this well-integrated program do not justify the proposed decrease.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony in support of the DOE basic life sciences programs. The ASM hopes that its recommendations will be useful to the Subcommittee. We would be pleased to respond to any questions.

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