Department of Energy - FY 2010 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 appropriation for the Department of Energy (DOE) science programs.

The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 43,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and environmental well-being.

The DOE Office of Science funds basic research in support of the DOE’s mission of energy security, national security, and environmental restoration. Research supported by the Office of Science encompasses such diverse fields as materials sciences, chemistry, high energy and nuclear physics, plasma science, biology, advanced computation, and environmental studies.

The ASM supports the Administration’s pledge to substantially increase funding for basic science research and scientific user facilities and urges Congress to fund the DOE office of science at $5.2 billion for FY 2010, an 8 percent increase.

We commend Congress for the substantial and much needed funding for the DOE in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009. The need remains, however, for a steady and reliable increase of fiscal year appropriations to provide real growth for DOE science budgets in future years.

Biological and Environmental Research (BER)

Operating within the DOE Office of Science, the BER division facilities the growth of a strong science based platform to continue to work with national laboratories, universities and private intuitions to harness the capabilities of microbial and plant systems. A fundamental task of the BER is supporting and providing research for the President’s National Energy Plan. Research from BER contributes to developing cost-effective, renewable energy, increasing the Nation’s energy security, and works to slow or stop increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide among other crucial priorities.

The ASM urges Congress to support an increase for the BER on par with the overall increase in FY2010 funding for the Office of Science.

Research on microbes contributes advances to critical technologies and processes necessary for addressing the Nation’s great energy and environmental challenges in a number of ways:

  • Carbon Sequestration: Microbes offer multiple possibilities for enhancing carbon sequestration, a process that can reduce CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere. These options include enhancing plant growth, some of which may be used for biofuels, and promoting carbon storage belowground. The latter process involves manipulation of microbial communities and activities to help stabilize organic carbon in soils.
  • Environmental Remediation: Microbes play major roles in modifying sub-surface environments, where many major pollutants accumulate and are subsequently dispersed. Microbial activities affect the chemical form and movement of many contaminants. The work of various research groups has shown that microbes can be manipulated to directly or indirectly provide potential cost-effective bioremediation strategies for immobilizing contaminants. For instance, two different microbes, Shewanella and Geobacter, transform toxic metals such as uranium from a soluble form that moves in groundwater, to an insoluble form that can then be recovered for decontamination. These and other microbes also decontaminate many other metals, radionuclides and toxic chemicals.
  • Renewable Energy: A greater understanding of the process by which crude oil is transformed into methane, or natural gas, opens the door to recovering clean-burning methane directly from deeply buried or in situ oil sands deposits. A recent study demonstrated methane production from anaerobic hydrocarbon degradation; these findings offer the possibility of ‘feeding’ specific hydrocarbons to microbes and rapidly accelerating their conversion into methane. Additional research has shown that hydrogen can be produced from partly degraded oil, and used with CO2 to form methane. This paves the way for using the microbes to capture this CO2 as methane, which could then be recycled as fuel in a closed-loop energy system.

Microbial enzymes are also important sources of catalysts for conversion of plant biomass, including cellulose and lignins to biofuels (e.g., ethanol and butanol). Continued support of basic microbiological research is essential for ensuring that the potential for biomass as a source of renewable, alternative fuels can be realized.

Genomics: GTL

The Genomics: GTL program supports basic research in plant and microbial systems biology and explores microbes and plants at the molecular cellular and community levels. The ASM supports an increase in funding for GTL in FY2010 to allow it to continue to advance DOE wide missions in environment, climate and energy.

The GTL goal remains to expand insights about fundamental biological processes and a predictive understanding of how living systems operate. This understanding, linked with DNA sequences and widely available, will catalyze the translation of science to new technologies for application in energy and environmental issues.

The GTL works with the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI), one of the world’s largest and most productive public genome sequencing centers, to map genomes of microbes and fungi that degrade biomass or impact plant productivity. This relationship has created a vital knowledge base within the DOE from which scientists are able to purposefully redesign proteins, biochemical pathways, and even entire plants or microbes to help solve bioenergy challenges.

Three GTL Bioenergy Research Centers were established in 2007, the Bioenergy Science Center, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, and the JGI. These centers, which are actively working toward making the production of biofuels more efficient, less costly, and commercially viable; results of ongoing studies are changing the way we think about biotechnology, and transforming how we power our nation. The centers are creating knowledge underlying three grand challenges faced by biology within the DOE mission: 1) development of the next-generation bioenergy crops; 2) discovery and design of enzymes, and microbes with novel biomass degrading capabilities; and 3) discovery and design of microbes that transform fuel production from biomass. Meeting these challenges will benefit all biological research efforts.

Areas of emphasis in Genomics: GTL include:

Bioenergy production: A broad range of research has been undertaken to optimize bioenergy production from a variety of renewable sources. Past and ongoing research has made significant progress in a number of areas: understanding the details of plant biomass structures and how they might be manipulated to improve conversion to biofuels; discovery of novel enzymes for improving conversion of biomass to biofuels; understanding the details of plant and microbial metabolism at a level that promotes controlled synthesis of desired end-products.

Environmental remediation: Research sponsored by Genomics:GTL has made major progress in understanding the functions and behavior of specific microbes (e.g., Geobacter and Shewanella) and microbial communities that play important roles in strategies for remediating a wide range of environmental problems, including clean-up of toxic wastes and radioactive materials. This work integrates from microbial genomes through the functions of microbes in the environment, and provides a foundation for altering microbial activities for to solve specific problems.

Carbon cycling: Microbes play major roles in the transformation of carbon in natural systems. Some of these transformations can promote carbon sequestration, while others produce greenhouse gases. Genomics: GTL research helps understand how complex microbial communities function in nature, and how these communities respond to changes and stresses. This information is not only critical for developing predictions of microbial responses to climate and other environmental changes, but is essential for developing approaches for managing those responses to minimize adverse impacts of change.

The ASM urges Congress to fully support the GTL program with increased funding to JGI. In FY2009, the President’s budget request included $162.7 million in funding for GTL, but significantly cut funding for JGI by $5million. It is imperative to ensure that funding increases are seen for both of these vital programs in FY 2010.

Environmental Remediation Sciences Division

The Environmental Remediation Sciences Division (ERSD) within BER sponsors and supports fundamental scientific research to understand the complex physical, chemical, and biological properties of contaminated sites in order to develop new solutions for environmental remediation. DOE is responsible for the largest, most complex, and diverse collection of environmental remediation challenges in the nation. ERSD supports two major activities: 1) the Environmental Remediation Sciences Program (ERSP), which seeks to provide the fundamental scientific knowledge needed to address challenging environmental problems that impede the remediation of contaminated environmental sites; and 2) the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), which is a national scientific user facility that provides integrated experimental and computational resources for discovery and technological innovation in the environmental molecular sciences to support the needs of DOE and the Nation.

DOE’s remediation challenges occur in the field where highly interactive natural processes acting over a broad range of scales control the fate and transport of contaminants. The ERSD goal is to help provide the basis for development of innovative remediation measures to support decision making critical to long-term stewardship. Of the 144 sites where DOE has remediation, waste management, or nuclear materials and facility stabilization responsibilities, nearly 100 have soils, sediments, or groundwater contaminated with radionuclides, metals, or organic materials.

The ASM urges Congress to fully support ERSD, which will help support DOE’s goal to “provide sufficient scientific understanding such that DOE sites would be able to incorporate physical, chemical and biological processes into decision making for environmental remediation and long-term stewardship.”

Energy Biosciences

The ASM supports increased funding for the Eenergy Biosciences program within the Basic Energy Sciences Division of Chemical Sciences, Geosciences, and Biosciences. The Energy Biosciences (EB) program within the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) division supports fundamental research to promote the development of future energy-related technologies. There is a specific emphasis in research on plant and non-medical microbial energy transduction systems. The EB program provides a fundamental understanding of the complex processes that convert and store energy in living systems and impacts numerous DOE interests, enhanced biofuel production strategies, next generation energy conversion/storage devices, and efficient and environmentally-friendly catalyst development in particular.

In FY 2009, EB was divided into two separate programs:

Photosynthetic systems: This program is focused on fundamental research to elucidate the specific mechanisms by which plants and microbes convert solar energy into chemically-stored forms of energy. Results from this new program will create a foundation for the development of enhanced biological and engineered systems to harvest solar energy, thus contributing to the Nation’s goal of energy independence.

Physical biosciences: This program combines tools and approaches from the physical sciences with the disciplines of molecular biology and biochemistry to create new understandings of the detailed mechanisms for energy storage and use in plants and microbes. Results for this new program will promote the development of improved systems for harvesting energy in multiple forms and enhancing their use for human needs.

Workforce Development

Scientific research and subsequent discovery is vital for the nation to remain competitive in the global economy and ensuring support for a well trained workforce of teachers and scientists at all levels, is imperative. The ASM supports increased funding for Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists within the DOE Office of Science which funds undergraduate research internships, graduate and faculty fellowships, pre-college activities, laboratory equipment programs, and teacher programs.

Conclusion

The ASM supports increased funding for the DOE Office of Science in FY 2010, and urges Congress to provide adequate funding for the BER, ERSD, and Genomics: GTL, and the JGI, which are essential to DOE’s mission. The DOE Office of Science programs enhance United States competitiveness through fundamental research and advanced scientific breakthroughs that revolutionize the Nation’s approach to challenging energy and environment challenges.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2010 appropriation for the DOE.

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