Your work targets the microbial communities in the oceans. Aside from gaining a better understanding of how microbes work, what are the tangible benefits that can be gained from studying marine microbes?
There's quite a number of them. One approach that people use, for instance, is to look for pharmaceuticals, what I term "drugs from bugs", in the ocean. From my own perspective, I think we can learn a lot from marine microbes about how the flux of energy and matter on our planet is balanced and what particular pathways and interactions result in biogeochemical cycling in a sustainable way. And I believe it's important to understand these natural processes because over the past 100 years, for the first time, our own species is impacting these cycles on a global scale.
Some of your recent work uncovered the fact that marine microbial communities vary in their composition with depth. For you, what was the most surprising finding to come out of this work?
I think there were a couple surprising things and one was that a very prevalent way of gathering light energy that we had recently discovered [using rhodopsin, a light-driven proton pump], rather than being distributed in just one or another organism, seems to be distributed across many species. In fact, one can almost say most major taxa that dwell in the oceans' photic zones have one or another example of an organism that has a light harvesting system based on rhodopsin.
In 2004, you moved your lab from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. What was the hardest part about the move? What was the best part?
Moving is always hard. I had many friends and great colleagues at MBARI and I was born and raised on the west coast, so there's always a bit of a tug when you move like that. The flip side for me was I was going to MIT which, of course, is a fairly well-known institution of higher education, with lots of really brilliant students, great faculty and amazing seminar series and so on. I'm teaching again, which I wasn't doing at MBARI, and teaching really keeps you honest, it keeps you on your toes. The move east, although it might not have improved the meteorological climate for me, it certainly is a wonderful intellectual climate and I really enjoy that.
What's next for your lab?
One of the exciting trends we're seeing now in microbial ecology is a move toward trying to understand more and more complex systems. And not just from one perspective. So although we use genomics, we aren't relegated to just working with genomic approaches. We really want to link an understanding of microbial communities at a genomic level to a better understanding of their biogeochemistry, their dynamics, and the linkages of those to higher order ecosystem function.
You've been awarded ASM's Procter & Gamble Award for achievement in research and development in applied and environmental microbiology, so I guess you'll be going to the ASM General Meeting this year?
Well, yes, and I don't have to go very far, either because it's in Boston, so I can probably ride my bike or at least take the subway. I'm really excited about receiving the award. It's not really an award to me as much as it is to my mentors, who really taught me everything I know and made it possible, as well as all my students and postdocs who have done all the work that have earned some of the accolades that we've gotten.
What do you think is the most understudied microbial system?
I would say the most understudied microbial system is planet Earth because we rarely study microbes in the context of the larger earth system. Understanding microbes on their own turf, whether that be in the ocean, in soils, or in the deep subsurface, are areas that we're just beginning to scratch the surface.
What is your favorite microbe? Why?
This is influenced by my close collaborator, Penny Chisolm. Prochlorococcus is a wonderful organism because it's small, and it's green and it makes oxygen (which we like to breathe), it uses carbon dioxide (which is one of our waste products), and it covers our planet as one of the most abundant phototrophs.
If you could name a new microbe right now, would you name it after yourself? If not, how would you name it?
I think I like names that refer more to function, so I like the idea of naming microbes with respect to what they do as opposed to after a person.
What advice would you give students about life as a microbiologist working in academia?
I would say always stick to your primary motivation. One deals with paperwork and grant writing and teaching - things that are important - but it's always important to keep that sense of wonder and delight in studying the world around us, which is really a big part of science.
What is something about you that most people don't know?
I'm very interested in eastern philosophies and their complimentarity to western science. I believe that western scientific materialism has a lot to offer, as does reductionism in terms of really understanding the inner details of how parts of the world work. But understanding things more holistically, in terms of how all those parts work together, I think we have a lot to learn from some of the overarching themes that run through eastern philosophies.