How would you describe yourself professionally? As an ecologist? A microbiologist?
I am a microbiologist by training, but then of course, I became very interested in ecology. Microbial ecology is one of those fields that fall in between disciplines. That’s very challenging but also very stimulating.
One of your recent articles looked at how grazing on bacteria changes with the seasons in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. Can you describe the major outcome of that work?
That was a fantastic cruise – it was organized by Canadian scientists, on a Canadian icebreaker. It sailed up north in the fall and it stayed there the whole year, with the sea freezing all around it. One thing that was very surprising was that in February, when the average outside temperature was -35° C [-31° F], algae were already starting to grow. There was a whole food chain based on very small algae and very small protozoa that was already going at this time of year. That had never been found before.
Someone had to collect those winter samples in the Arctic. Was it you out on the ice?
I was there, but not for the whole year. Since I was the “chief” of that Spanish team I picked the coldest period for myself because I wanted the “real” experience of being there in the winter.
Do you think researchers are missing any opportunities in your field? If so, what are they?
The big thing that is happening now is the revolution that genomics has brought to all areas of biology. I like to think of the way we were doing science before genomics as if we were trying to explore a continent at night with spotlights and without a map – you walk around at random, essentially, and you discover a few things here and there, and from that you try to construct a map of the whole continent. But now with genomics to me it’s as if the sun has come up and we have a map. It’s very exciting, because things are going to be changing very quickly in all areas of biology.
What’s been the most surprising discovery in your lab recently?
We’ve been working with bacteria that we isolated on the coast north of Barcelona, and luckily these bacteria have had their genome completely sequenced. Some of them have this recently discovered molecule, proteorhodopsin, which is able to use light energy. Proteorhodopsin was first discovered through genomic techniques, that means we only had the sequences and we didn’t have organisms with this gene. So we’re lucky to have these parts and we’ve done experiments with them and we showed that some of them grew better in the light than in the dark, thanks to the proteorhodopsin. They fix more CO2 in the light than in the dark – and this is weird because these bacteria are heterotrophs, they need organic matter. Apparently, they can use the light energy to increase the CO2 fixation in the light. This may be very helpful when they find themselves in the surface of the ocean where there’s lots of light but very little organic matter.
If you had to change careers today and you could do anything, what would you do?
This is very clear to me: I would become an architect.
What’s your favorite science book?
I recommend two books – they were both written by Francois Jacob, a Nobel Prize winner, but besides being a great scientist, he’s a great writer. He has one book that in English is called the “Logic of Life.” It’s the best history of biology that I’ve read. It’s so illuminating about how things work because he’s not just looking at the great guys who were right, he’s also looking at the guys who were wrong, and he analyzes why those ideas were wrong. He also wrote his autobiography – “The Statue Within.” It’s another marvelous book – it’s full of humanity.
What is something about you that most people don’t know? I love to write fiction books.
The protagonists are usually scientists because that’s the environment I know the best. I get a kick out of trying to, say, write a book in the style of Dan Brown. Of course, I don’t sell like Dan Brown does, but maybe in the future I will.