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The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science Society with 39,000 members, wishes to submit the following recommendations in support of increased funding for the Fiscal Year 2015 budget for the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. The DOE Office of Science has generated some of the Nation’s most economically important innovations and supports a large share of basic research in the physical sciences as well as critical areas of microbiological research. The DOE Office of Science supports research through six core programs: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics and Nuclear Physics. Some of the most powerful scientific advances have emerged from intersections between these programs, such as the Human Genome Project integrating biology with computing to launch a biotechnology revolution, or new biofuel energy produced with microbial enzymes or improved microbial hosts.
The ASM strongly recommends increased funding for the DOE Office of Science and Biological and Environmental Research. In February, the National Science Board released its latest biennial measures of the US position in global R&D, confirming that US predominance in science and technology continues to falter as other nations accelerate their R&D investments. Since 2001, the US share of worldwide R&D decreased from 37 percent to 30 percent. Despite these unfortunate trends downward, the US is still investing twice as much in R&D as any other nation (though it has fallen to tenth place in terms of percentage of GDP). The US also has maintained its global lead in research publications, patents and monetary value of its R&D based intellectual property exports. It is vitally important that Congress continues to make increased investments in basic research and the biological and environmental research funded by the DOE Office of Science. The opportunities to generate knowledge that will spurn innovation and support US economic growth in the energy sector are too great to let advances from past investments move overseas.
DOE Office of Science funding has proven to be the motivational force in a number of fields that might otherwise stagnate. DOE funds intramural projects at DOE national laboratories and grant recipients at universities and other institutions across the US. Reports on R&D in the US regularly state the importance of federally funded university research in creating new companies and R&D jobs.
DOE Office of Science funding has built and operates more than 30 national scientific user facilities, which provide DOE and non-DOE researchers with the most advanced scientific tools, including supercomputers, particle accelerators, light sources and neutron sources and specialized facilities for studying the nanoworld or the environment. In FY 2012, over 29,000 researchers from academia, industry and government labs utilized these unique facilities to perform research that might have been impossible elsewhere. The Office of Science also operates 10 of the 17 DOE national laboratories across the United States. This February, university scientists reported key surface structures on the viruses causing dengue fever and West Nile fever that help the pathogens replicate and spread infection. Their research utilized DOE’s micro X-ray beam facility at Argonne National Laboratory to characterize the structures. The US R&D enterprise benefits immeasurably from this unparalleled network of large scale research facilities, the collective expertise of DOE technical staff and training programs for scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
Last May, DOE announced its fourth annual Early Career Research awards to boost the Nation’s scientific workforce, allocating up to $15.3 million for research by 61 scientists at US universities and national laboratories. DOE training grants help to ensure future expertise in critical R&D fields, many of which utilize microorganisms. For example, the 2013 R&D 100 Awards, which recognize top technology products, included products based on microbiology research at DOE laboratories: a lab kit that coordinates synthesis of foreign membrane proteins with synthesis of bacterial membranes to create membrane bound vesicles for use in drug discovery and other experiments; and a battery alternative that genetically modifies virus DNA to boost voltage produced by a biofilm of the virus (M13 phage), sandwiched between electrodes connected to external devices.
Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER)
The Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program has built a reputation as world class innovator in large scale genomics, biofuels, biogeochemical processes like terrestrial carbon storage and soil contaminant migration and climate change modeling. BER supports both basic research and scientific user facilities that redefine the crucial US sectors of biotechnology, sustainable energy and environmental quality, with projects distributed between two divisions: Climate and Environmental Sciences (CESD) and Biological Systems Science (BSSD).
The Biological Systems Science Division administers the Agency’s programs in genomics based systems biology and radiological sciences, as well as the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers. Using cutting edge genomics and powerful computing capability, BSSD supported research mines the genomes of microbial ecosystems to identify enzymes needed to process plant biomass, redesigns microbes for next generation biofuel production, advances understanding of global carbon cycle processes, and examines the role of biology in the fate of environmental contaminants. It also develops predictive computational models within the growing field of systems biology, along with tools for manipulating complex biosystems for practical applications. The JGI is a major user facility for genome sequencing that is an invaluable resource for the life sciences community.
BER is preeminent in basic microbiology relevant to energy, climate and environment and in reengineering these microorganisms, ensuring a high value return on federal investments of robust DOE funding. Among BER’s impressive impact are exciting possibilities of cellulosic and hydrocarbon based biofuels made from nonfood feedstocks, and algae directly replacing gasoline and other fuels. BER funded scientists are identifying microbes that most efficiently break down plant fiber, while others are genetically modifying microbes to directly produce fuel. Some projects incorporate collaborations among multiple universities, national laboratories, private companies and nonprofit organizations. These efforts have great potential for slowing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and reducing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide which would alleviate concerns about the impacts of global climate change.
Recent DOE-BER Microbiology Research Highlights:
The Climate and Environmental Sciences (CES) Division plays a similarly unique role in research on terrestrial ecosystems, atmosphere, water and nutrient cycling in soils, climate change and environmental effects of energy production and use. Non-DOE researchers regularly access its user facilities (ARM Climate Research Facility and Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory), which provide the latest tools to analyze phenomena like contaminant mineral microbial interactions or biomarkers for disease. Recently reported CES supported work includes the discovery that soil containing high levels of certain types of symbiotic fungi contains about 70 percent more carbon than soils with other fungal types, a striking difference that might be attributable to varying fungal competition for nitrogen. Other research suggests that long term climate warming increases the microbial carbon use efficiency associated with degradation of complex carbon compounds such as phenol, but not of simple carbon compounds like glucose. Another CES focus, understanding the role of soil microorganisms in the fate and transport of environmental contaminants, continues to identify details important to environmental quality, such as the impact of bacterial biomass in the soil on which state of uranium is present, or finding a two gene cluster required by methylating bacteria to produce the neurotoxin methyl mercury from inorganic mercury in the environment.
The DOE Office of Science funding is vitally important to US innovation and economic growth and its programs clearly contribute to US global competitiveness in science and technology. The ASM urges Congress to fund the DOE Office of Science at the highest level possible in FY 2015. The DOE Office of Science advances science that addresses the growing challenges of energy and environmental change.