March 30, 2012 - Department of Energy - FY 2013

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following statement on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 appropriation for science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 38,000 members.            

The Administration’s FY 2013 budget request of $5 billion for DOE’s Office of Science is a minimal 2.4 percent increase over the FY 2012 enacted level.  We urge Congress to approve increased resources for the  research and development (R&D) managed by the Office of Science, one of three federal agencies identified  as crucial to the future of our nation’s global competitiveness in science and technology. The Office of Science sponsors research by multi-disciplinary teams from various government institutions, academia and the private sector.  It leads the nation in energy and environmental research and is the largest federal sponsor of basic research in the physical sciences.  The DOE Office of Science contributes to sectors of the US economy, such as biotechnology, alternative energy and environmental sciences.  DOE funded researchers and programs discover innovative technologies, methods and commercial products that serve national priorities like climate change, environment cleanup and renewable energy. 

DOE research initiatives are producing results not possible in other research settings.  Two examples are (1) the 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers established by the Office of Science in 2009 at universities, national laboratories and other US institutions to advance basic energy related research; and (2) the three Bioenergy Research Centers created in 2007 to focus on next generation biofuels.  DOE facilities also provide non DOE researchers with invaluable tools that might otherwise be inaccessible like the advanced X-ray beam sources currently being used by industry to study the enzyme RNA polymerase II, a project based on Nobel prize winning DOE research with potential for stopping RNA viruses causing polio, hepatitis and other infectious diseases.

The Office of Science oversees high impact projects divided among R&D programs focused on advancing physics, computing, biology, chemistry, environmental sciences and other disciplines.  It manages ten DOE national laboratories and promotes education programs to encourage future scientists and engineers.  Extramural SC funding supports about 25,000 researchers at nearly 300 U.S. universities and colleges.  In FY 2013, an estimated 26,500 researchers from industry, national laboratories, universities, and other nations are expected to use Office of Science lab facilities, accessing one of a kind instruments for their own research.  

In addition, DOE technology transfer efforts yield exemplary successes of commercial products arising from federally funded inventions.  DOE announced in February that eight of its national laboratories will participate in a pilot program expediting the transfer of DOE intellectual property rights to private companies.  The newly designed Agreements for Commercializing Technology will make it easier for companies to partner with the laboratories and are expected to help US businesses create new products and jobs in the science and technology sector.

DOE Funding Stimulates Novel Approaches to Biology Based Research

The Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program within the Office of Science is a source of groundbreaking research in genomics, climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels, contaminants in the environment and the interfaces between physical and biological sciences.  Under the current DOE Strategic Plan, BER is tasked with delivering new renewable energy technologies, utilizing basic biological research to create efficient biofuels processes.  BER also is expected to add significantly to our understanding of the role of microbes in geochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and metals, processes that are critical to understanding climate and environmental processes. 

The BER program receives about $625 million in the FY 2013 request, a small 2.6 percent increase over FY 2012.   We urge Congress to approve the Administration’s DOE budget that includes the resources for essential BER research.  The budget increase is marked for developing synthetic biology tools and technologies, analyzing experimental data sets, and conducting climate studies in the Arctic.  In FY 2013, 65 percent of the BER budget will support research projects, while the remaining 35 percent will fund scientific user facilities that include the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility, the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), and the Joint Genome Institute (JGI).

The FY 2013 budget would support the diverse R&D portfolios of BER’s two divisions:  the Biological Systems Science Division and the Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, allocated about $310 million and $316 million respectively.  In FY 2013, resources will be increased for research on climate change in arctic and tropical regions, as well as for a shift in emphasis from global climate modeling to smaller, regional models.  The funding on systems sciences will increase investments in the development of synthetic biology tools, computational analyses of genomic datasets and biodesign technologies. 

BER contributions include the Human Genome Project initiated in the 1980s and some of the nation’s earliest climate change models.  BER has significantly shaped our understanding of technical fields like genomics and natural phenomena like microbial communities and their interactions with the environment.  BER funded projects also have elucidated the biogeochemical processes at work under the Earth’s surface that are critical to advances in both energy and environmental research.

DOE Funding Advances Research in Genome Sciences, Biofuels and Biotechnology

The BER programs biological systems sciences have a diverse R&D portfolio, focused on applying advances in systems biology research in support of DOE strategies in energy, climate and the environment. BER supports the DOE Bioenergy Research Centers, which clearly are succeeding as innovation incubators for genetics based R&D and alternative energy development.  The overarching goal of these research programs is a complete scientific portrait from the molecular to the community level of plants and microbes with potential to solve societal challenges like clean energy and pollutant decontamination.  Another optimal outcome would be sufficiently detailed knowledge to develop predictive, computational models of these living systems necessary to enable synthetic biology approaches for biofuels production and understand roles of microbes in environmental and climate processes.

Funding for BER research effectively combines interdisciplinary science with powerful new tools like bioinformatics and imaging technologies developed through past DOE appropriations.  Microorganisms are frequently integral components in BER funded projects that have implications for preserving healthy environments.  One example is the DOE Joint Genome Institute project that recently identified previously unknown methane producing microbes in permafrost soils, which could become a major problem through their release of greenhouse gases as climate change thaws the Earth’s arctic regions.  Arctic permafrost, where these microbes are abundant, sequesters an estimated 1.6 trillion metric tons of carbon. BER supported systems biology knowledgebase, which is community driven cyberinfrastructure for sharing and integrating data and analytical tools to accelerate predictive biology.

Ongoing DOE research is aggressively seeking new biomass sources for biofuel production, to reduce demand on corn and other food plants considered too valuable for non-food purposes. 

In 2011, microbiology related results reported by DOE investigators included the following examples supported by BER genome science programs:

  • BER funded researchers sequenced many fungal genomes, which contain enzymes that break down cellulose and lignin, the two most abundant biopolymers on Earth, in order to harness these capabilities for industrial applications such as biofuels production. Another application is biopulping for the paper industry, which requires that the lignin be degraded while leaving the cellulose untouched. Forest products such as pulp and paper account for five percent of the nation's GDP.
  • BER supported researchers have developed technologies that could be used to rewrite the genetic code of a living cell. Such technology could enable scientists to design cells that build proteins not found in nature, or engineer bacteria that are useful for bioenergy and environmental cleanups.
  • Researchers completed an advanced metabolic model of the alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii that should expedite development of algae as a viable source of renewable bioenergy.
  • Genetically engineered E. coli have been manipulated to improve the bacteria’s synthesis of terpene, a precursor of several biofuels, by 120 percent.  Other scientists have modified E. coli and yeasts to produce the terpene called bisabolane as a promising biofuel precursor, one found to be relatively nontoxic to the microbes; unlike other biofuels like ethanol that can limit commercially viable biofuel production.  Alternatively, scientists also have inserted a novel fatty acid synthesis enzyme into E. coli, a first step in biodiesel production from fatty acids.
  • BER funded researchers, using integrated genomics technologies, discovered that microorganisms play crucial roles in regulating soil carbon dynamics through several microbially mediated feedback mechanisms. This demonstrated the importance of microbial communities in projecting future climate warming. Such studies are fundamental to understanding ecosystem responses to climate change and provides a mechanistic basis for carbon climate modeling.

DOE Funding Supports Innovative Studies of the Environment

BER also sponsors research that ranges widely from molecular to field scale studies of various threats to our environment.  BER manages two scientific user facilities (ARM and EMSL) and supports three strategic research areas in environmental sciences:  atmospheric systems, climate and earth system modeling and environmental system science.  BER funded researchers investigate environmental challenges like increased levels of greenhouse gases and heavy metal soil contaminants. 

Several currently active CESD projects illustrate the division’s unique expertise using microbial systems to protect and improve our environment:

  • BER funded researchers found that the films from some bacteria and pilin nanofilaments from bacteria have electronic conductivities, which are comparable to those of synthetic metallic nanostructures. They can also conduct over distances on the centimetre scale. The property of allowing electron transport across long distances could revolutionize nanotechnology and bioelectronics.
  • Using EMSL equipment, a DOE university team was the first to describe the molecular structure of proteins in Shewanella oneidensis that allow the bacterium to transfer an electrical charge.  The proteins exist within small “nanowires” constructed by the bacteria that extend through their cell walls and trap minerals.  The discovery is a step toward potentially using microbes as a source of electricity, perhaps as microbial fuel cells.  The results also have possible relevance to microbial cleanup of environmental contaminants.
  • BER supported researchers found that the dual role of dissolved organic matter in mercury reduction and complexation in anoxic environments where both bacterial methylation and DOM reduction occur. Such studies, provide mechanistic insights into the factors controlling mercury species transformation, geochemical cycling and especially toxic methylmercury production, which are critical to mercury remediation in groundwater.

Conclusion

The ASM recommends that Congress approve the proposed FY 2013 budget, in support of the DOE’s Office of Science. DOE science programs routinely generate discoveries of economic and societal impact that serve the DOE mission, often by collaborating with non-DOE partners or sponsoring multidisciplinary research teams. The Office of Science also maintains unique lab facilities and institutes with robust capabilities to solve difficult, large scale problems. We ask Congress to recognize these invaluable contributors to the economy, environment and public health by supporting increased funding for the FY 2013 DOE budget.

 

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