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2010 Chancellor's Report


Microbe Hunter


Microbes, to the uninitiated, are unappealing organisms. They count E. coli, Salmonella, and assorted other germs among their ranks. But as the world's supply of natural resources dwindles and pollution escalates, microbes could be our best friends for making the world healthier for human habitation.

UT microbiologist Frank Loeffler is one of the leading experts in the field of bioremediation—the use of microbes and other organisms to decontaminate polluted water and other damaged aspects of the environment.

Loeffler, who currently holds the position of Governor's Chair in microbiology, with joint appointments in the departments of microbiology and civil and environmental engineering, says he first became interested in researching microbes because they are uncharted territory for scientists. Researchers have identified only a tiny fraction of the millions of species of microbes that exist, and there are many more that have been identified but not studied in the laboratory.

Loeffler's research has yielded a number of valuable findings. A few years ago, he accepted an assignment from the Department of Energy to help find ways to detoxify harmful metals and radioactive contaminants. Although microbes can't destroy metals, they can make metals less toxic. For example, microbes can change the properties of uranium so the element precipitates out of water, preventing groundwater flowing through a contaminated area from picking up and disbursing the uranium. Thanks to Loeffler's research, this strategy has been successfully demonstrated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a DOE facility plagued by uranium-contaminated groundwater.

In addition, his research has contributed to the routine use of "starved" microbes to detoxify groundwater contaminated with chlorinated solvents, which are toxic and highly restricted. He is still looking into other microbe-based water purification methods.

Water is not Loeffler's only concern; he is also searching for novel groups of microorganisms that can influence the flux of greenhouse gases from soils and water into the atmosphere. By understanding these microbes and how to manage their activities, he hopes to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released from farming activities and thawing permafrost soil.

While Loeffler is working with scientists and engineers to find cost-effective ways for microbes to restore contaminated environments, he is not optimistic we will ever reach a point at which we can live in harmony with the environment. Instead, he says we will always be trying to fix ecological processes that we broke through ignorance, thoughtlessness, or greed.

Loeffler's research is providing the scientific base to come up with engineering solutions for these kinds of problems. Looking at the climate forecast for the near and long-term future, it seems evident that, at least in his lifetime, he'll never be out of work.