Department of Energy - FY 2009 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 appropriation for the Department of Energy (DOE) science programs. The Office of Science funds basic research in support of the DOE’s mission of energy security, national security, environmental restoration, and science. 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. Increased resources are necessary to meet the goals of, and challenges faced by, the DOE Office of Science. The ASM supports the President’s request of $4.722 billion for the DOE Office of Science, an increase of $749 million, or 18.9 percent, over the FY 2008 funding level. The requested increase is consistent with the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), but is $500 million below the authorization level for the DOE Office of Science in FY 2009, under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L.110-69).

Research on microbial biology supported by DOE is essential in meeting the energy, environmental, and sustainability challenges facing the nation. Microbial biology research is critical for advances in bioenergy, carbon sequestration, and environmental remediation. The ASM strongly encourages DOE to support a balanced research portfolio as it seeks to increase production of bioenergy sources and develop mitigation strategies that the energy industry can use to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The ASM encourages the DOE to maintain support for all science and technology solutions to long-term environmental challenges, such as climate change and environmental remediation.

Biological and Environmental Research

Within the DOE Office of Science, the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) division uses peer-reviewed research at national laboratories, universities, and private institutions to build a science, technology, and knowledge base for understanding and harnessing the capabilities of microbial and plant systems that will lead to cost effective, renewable energy production, greater energy security, clean up of legacy wastes, and reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The ASM supports the President’s requested increase for the DOE Office of Science and urges Congress to support an increase for the BER consistent with the requested increase for its overseeing agency, the DOE Office of Science.

BER research programs such as the Genomic: GTL program, Environmental Remediation Sciences Division (ERSD), the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) are instrumental for understanding microbial biology, how microorganisms interact with and respond to their environments, and how microorganisms can be harnessed to produce clean, efficient energy, remove excess carbon from the atmosphere, answer questions about climate change, and help clean up the environment.

Examples of how microbial research is advancing breakthrough technologies to meet these challenges are:

  • Carbon Sequestration: Harnessing naturally occurring, non-photosynthetic microbiological processes capable of converting carbon into useful forms, such as methane and acetate, could represent a technology breakthrough. An important advantage of biological systems is that they do not require pure carbon dioxide (CO2) and do not incur costs for separation, capture, and compression of CO2 gas. Currently, the cost of CO2 capture is approximately $150 per ton of carbon, much too high for carbon emissions reduction applications.
  • Environmental Remediation: Subsurface microbes, through their interactions with each other and the geochemical environment, play a role in modifying the geochemistry of these subsurface environments, thereby affecting their chemical form and movement. Microbes can directly, or indirectly through their influence on sediment geochemistry, provide a potential cost-effective bioremediation strategy to immobilize contaminants. Shewanella and Geobacter, for example, are two types of microbes that can enzymatically transform toxic species such as Uranium(VI), which is soluble and moves in groundwater, to Uranium(IV), which is insoluble and precipitates as UO2 (uraninite), which can then be removed.
  • Renewable Energy: Understanding how crude oil biodegrades into methane, or natural gas, opens the door to being able to recover the clean-burning methane directly from deeply buried, or in situ, oil sands deposits. A recent study demonstrated how anaerobic degradation of hydrocarbons produced methane. The findings offer the potential of ‘feeding’ the microbes and rapidly accelerating the breaking down of the oil into methane. The same team found microbes that produce CO2 and hydrogen from partly degraded oil, prior to it being turned into methane. This paves the way for using microbes to capture this CO2 as methane, which could then be recycled as fuel in a closed-loop energy system.

Genomics: GTL

The GTL program, within BER, supports research that conducts explorations of microbes and plants at the molecular, cellular, and community levels. The goal is to gain insights about fundamental biological processes and, ultimately, a predictive understanding of how living systems operate. The resulting knowledge base, linked through DNA sequence and freely available, will catalyze the translation of science into new technologies for energy and environmental applications.

Microbes make up the foundation of the biosphere and sustain all life on earth. DOE has sponsored the genome sequencing of key model plants and some 225 microbes relevant for generating clean energy, cleaning up toxic waste from nuclear weapons development, and cycling carbon from the atmosphere. 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 affect plant productivity. Building on this foundation of knowledge on biological systems, scientists will be enabled to redesign proteins, biochemical pathways, and even entire plants or microbes important to solving bioenergy challenges and meeting other DOE needs.

Additionally, GTL makes its resources, research centers, and knowledgebase available to all scientists and industry, enabling innovative investigations on the systems biology level and fostering participation by the greater community in solving DOE mission problems. These enabling capabilities also will facilitate rapid translation of science into new technologies and catalyze the industrial biotechnology sector of the economy.

Three GTL Bioenergy Research Centers were established in 2007, the Bioenergy Science Center, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, and the Joint Bioenergy Institute. These centers, which will work toward making the production of biofuels more efficient, less costly, and commercially viable, will change the way we think about biotechnology and transform how we power our nation. The centers will create 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 on microbes that transform fuel production from biomass. Meeting these challenges will benefit all biological investigation.

The President’s budget request includes $162.7 million for the GTL program, an increase of $10 million above FY 2008, but cuts funding to the JGI program by $5 million. ASM supports the increased funding request, but notes that the JGI is essential to understanding the foundation of all biological processes. The ASM urges Congress to provide $167.7 million for the GTL program, which will maintain the requested increases and restore funding for the JGI in FY 2009.

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 for new solutions to 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, 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 supports the President’s FY 2009 request of $98.3 million for ERSD. This is a $4.6 million increase for ERSD over FY 2008, 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 Energy Biosciences (EB) program, within the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) division, supports fundamental research that will provide platform understandings for future energy-related technologies. Research emphasis is on plant and non-medical microbial energy transduction systems. In FY 2009, EB will evolve into two complementary programs: 1) Photosynthetic Systems:The program supports fundamental research on the biological conversion of solar energy into chemically stored forms of energy; and 2)  Physical Biosciences: This program combines experimental and computational tools from the physical sciences with biochemistry and molecular biology.

The EB program provides a fundamental understanding of the complex processes that convert and store energy in living systems and impacts numerous DOE interests; particularly included are enhanced biofuel production strategies, next generation energy conversion/storage devices, and efficient and environmentally friendly catalysts. The ASM supports the $74.4 million increase requested in funding for the EB program within the BES Division of Chemical Sciences, Geosciences, and Biosciences; however, the ASM urges Congress to equally distribute the increase between the different programs.

Workforce Development

Cultivating a well-trained workforce of teachers and scientists is vital for maintaining our nation’s competitiveness, and meeting the challenges of the future. The ASM supports the President’s request of $13.6 million for Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists within the DOE Office of Science, through undergraduate research internships, graduate and faculty fellowships, pre-college activities, laboratory equipment programs, and teacher programs. These programs build links between the national laboratories and the science education community provides mentor intensive research experiences at national laboratories for undergraduate and graduate students, and encourages middle and high school students in the fields of math and science.

Conclusion

The ASM supports the President’s 18.9 percent increase for the DOE Office of Science in FY 2009, and urges Congress to provide adequate funding for the BER, including ERSD, Genomics: GTL, and the JGI, which are essential in meeting DOE’s mission. The DOE Office of Science programs enhance US competitiveness through fundamental research for advanced scientific breakthroughs that will revolutionize our approach to the nation’s 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 2009 appropriation for the DOE.

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