April 8, 2011 - Department of Energy - FY 2012 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 appropriation for science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with over 38,000 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 ASM supports the Administration’s proposed FY 2012 budget of $5.4 billion for the DOE’s Office of Science, a 9.1 percent increase over the FY 2010 appropriation level. The proposed FY 2012 budget will enable the Office of Science to continue its leadership in critical areas including, renewable energy, environmental cleanup, carbon capture and sequestration, climate change and basic research across the physical and biological sciences.

DOE investments in science and technology create new industries and jobs, and strengthen US basic research capabilities. The Office of Science funds research in academic institutions, DOE laboratories and technology centers that employ over 30,000 scientists and engineers. In FY 2012, more than 26,000 researchers from universities, national laboratories, industry and international groups are expected to use the DOE’s world renowned research facilities.

The Office of Science is the largest federal sponsor of basic research in the physical sciences as well as the largest federal funder of materials and chemical sciences. The ten national laboratories directly overseen by the Office of Science are world leaders in basic and applied research, generating breakthroughs in multiple disciplines. DOE provides scientific expertise to address challenges including events in post earthquake Japan, the search for clean energy and many environmental challenges.

The ASM has a specific interest in microbiological research overseen by the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program. Microorganisms are essential to research areas like biofuels and environment remediation. The ASM recommends Congressional approval of the proposed budget increase for the BER program to $718 million, about 22 percent over the FY 2010 level.

DOE Investments in Biological and Environmental Research Yield Innovative Solutions

The Biological and Environmental Research program cuts across scientific and engineering disciplines to understand complicated biological, climatic and environmental systems. BER funded research has advanced scientific knowledge providing the foundational research to support biofuels development, monitor subsurface contaminants and expose the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. BER funding is also responsible for new research tools that help investigators explore the interface of biological and physical sciences.

The BER research portfolio has transformed science and technology in the United States. An example is the Human Genome Project initiated by BER in 1986, a catalyst for the biotechnology industry and the emerging field of systems biology. BER sponsored activities have helped shape modern climate science with powerful climate modeling capabilities. BER’s computing experts and facilities have guided new disciplines dependent upon high end computer resources, such as computational biology and bioinformatics. DOE funding has influenced scientific discovery. Recent examples include:

  • use of a newly patented group of naturally occurring microbes to detoxify chlorinated solvents that contaminate a former DOE reactor site, improving groundwater quality
  • genetic mapping of plant digesting microbes from the cow rumen, generating 270 billion letters of the DNA code in a massive data collecting effort to understand how to efficiently degrade plant biomass for biofuels production
  • atomic scale X-ray crystallography studies that identified microbial proteins possibly key to formation of drug resistant biofilms, suggesting new antibiotic targets

The FY 2012 budget proposes increases for the areas of genomic science and computational biosciences, as well as for BER’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and Structural Biology Infrastructure programs.

BER’s major scientific goals for FY 2012 include advances in genomic science, radiological sciences, climate research and subsurface biogeochemistry. Relevant research will be distributed between BER’s two subprograms, Biological Systems Science Division (BSSD) and Climate and Environmental Sciences Division (CESD). The former focuses on fundamental principles related to function and structure of living systems from microbes to mammals, while the latter examines environmental impacts of energy production and use. Both rely heavily on microbiological systems and techniques.

The FY 2012 request for BSSD is $376 million, an increase from the FY 2010 level of $310 million. In FY 2012, CESD would receive nearly $342 million compared to $278 million in FY 2010. Within CESD, Environmental System Science activities increase by 22 percent. BER budgets also include support for world class facilities and research consortia. The BSSD subprogram manages the Joint Genome Institute, the BioenergyScience Center, the Joint Bioenergy Institute and three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers. The CSSD oversees two scientific user facilities, the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL). The Joint Genome Institute is now sequencing more than four trillion genome base pairs annually (more than 130 times that of five years ago), while EMSL with its powerful instrumentation and computing housed at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, leads worldwide efforts in the field of proteomics. Results reported from BER funded research in the past year include:

  • Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that various microbial species cooperate in marine environments during their cycling of organic matter, important to the global carbon cycle (BSSD funded).
  • Bioenergy Science Center studies described a new method to genetically modify the cellulose degrading bacterium Clostridium thermocellum, with potential to expedite critical degradation steps in biofuels production. DOE scientists at Princeton University developed the first ever quantitative model for metabolic processes in another Clostridium species that produces butanol, ethanol, and hydrogen during biomass fermentation and is already used by industry, a step toward engineering the microbe for biofuels synthesis.
  • Another collaborative CESD study determined that different microorganisms convert soluble uranium to different forms of reduced uranium, pertinent to controlling contaminants at nuclear sites. Other researchers used microbial fuel cell techniques and electrodes inserted into soil to monitor microbial activity as related to the progress of uranium bioremediation, a technique also applicable to other microbial processes in the environment.

DOE Research Builds R&D Infrastructure, Workforce

DOE science programs have evolved and expanded into an R&D infrastructure unparalleled in specific areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. DOE laboratories operate sophisticated equipment often not available elsewhere, and large numbers of non DOE researchers from the US and other countries regularly use DOE facilities to conduct studies that would otherwise be impossible.

The DOE Office of Science has built extraordinary research capabilities, including particle accelerator centers, advanced computational centers and atmospheric monitoring facilities. As an example, EMSL offers users a supercomputer and over 60 major instruments to support environmental sciences, serving more than 700 users annually. In the past year, an international team of over 80 researchers from 21 institutions used the world's first hard X-ray free electron laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source at DOE's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, to produce the first single shot images of intact viruses, expected to lead to eventual videos of molecules, viruses and live microbes in action.

Innovative research tools developed at the national labs or other DOE funded institutions regularly stimulate multiple scientific fields, often transferring to the technology marketplace as valuable commercial products. The DOE toolkit includes research protocols, monitoring and measuring equipment, computer models and databases and considerably more. One commercialized example is the PhyloChip developed by DOE scientists that can detect up to 50,000 species of bacteria and archaea in a single environmental sample, which was deployed at last year’s Gulf oil spill. The innovation has already spawned a start up company and is expected to have broad applications in monitoring. At BER’s Joint Bioenergy Institute, scientists developed a mass spectrometry based detection technique called multiple reaction monitoring, to more efficiently and accurately identify microbial proteins that convert cellulosic sugars to biofuels. Last year, BER sponsored university scientists introduced an optimization method that delineates all possible metabolic pathways in an organism like biofuels related bacteria, then suggests which genetic changes could trick the microbe into overproducing a desired product like ethanol.

The Office of Science also supports the Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) program, at $35.6 million, a substantial 72 percent increase over FY 2010. The WDTS program continues DOE’s long history of training scientists, mathematicians and engineers as US technical workforce, principally through research grants and contracts at universities, the private sector, and DOE’s own laboratories. The program also reaches out to all academic levels. Each year, participants in training and education programs at DOE laboratories include more than 250,000 K-12 students, 22,000 K-12 educators, 4,000 undergraduate interns, 3,000 graduate students and 1,600 post doctoral employees. In 2010, a new graduate fellowship program selected its first cohort of 150 students, beginning an initiative to attract more students to careers in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, environmental sciences or computer sciences.

DOE Partnerships Elevate US Science & Technology

The BER program collaborates with other federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, to optimize complementary research. DOE and USDA for example share similar goals in finding new bioenergy sources while DOE’s climate change studies integrate closely with those in multiple federal agencies. DOE collaborations extend to academia, industry, nonprofits and international partners. The Office of Science funds more than 7,000 individual research projects at universities, national laboratories, US industry and the nonprofit sector. In FY 2012, the BER budget would support approximately 2,400 researchers and graduate students in more than 200 US federal, academic and private institutions. DOE personnel also advise non DOE scientists and policymakers. About 40 DOE experts have travelled to Japan with more than 17,000 pounds of equipment to help monitor radiation released by the recent earthquake.

Extramural DOE funding contributes significantly to science and technology achievements. More than 110 Nobel laureates have received DOE support, as did two recipients of the 2011 Franklin Institute Medal. Last year, 39 DOE funded projects garnered R&D 100 Awards which recognize the world’s most promising new products, processes, materials or software that had entered the market the previous year. DOE funding has supported the basic research for 800 R&D 100 winners since 1962.

Conclusion

The ASM recommends that Congress approve the proposed FY 2012 budget for the DOE science programs that support diverse often large scale research, uniquely important to the US economy, national security, a healthy environment and the future status of US science and technology.

TPL_asm2013_SEARCH