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Spring 2002

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Around the Pond

IT'S A MICROORGANISM'S LIFE -
In the mud. In the mountains. On Mars?

Marietta Pritchard ’73G

HAVE EXTRATERRESTRIALS LANDED IN IDAHO? Well, no. But according to one of Derek Lovley’s latest studies, microorganisms living in hot springs in deep fracture zones under Idaho’s Beaverhead Mountains may provide a clue to how life could exist in the absence of sunlight and carbon – as perhaps it might
on Mars.

Lovley, head of the university’s microbiology department, defies the stereotype of a top-rank scientist. No rumpled clothes under the white lab coat. No distracted air. No answering simple questions with long, incomprehensible formulas scribbled across a blackboard. Lovely is direct, articulate, unpretentious, a good explainer of his work, even to a non-scientist. He is boyish, almost impish-looking. Seated in his tidy office in Morrill in a plaid flannel shirt, chinos and running shoes on a bright spring day, he looks as though he should be out flying a kite or chasing a ball around the soccer field. Instead he’s indoors chasing – and catching – ideas.

It’s true that the sources of his ideas are outdoors: in the superheated water near underwater volcanoes, in deep recesses under mountains, in the silt at the bottom of rivers. Still, although these days he doesn’t get a chance to be on site as much as he’d like, he’s thriving in his office and labs, directing the 30 people in his research group, generating a stunning $7 million in grants.


LOVELY HAS MADE NEWS REPORTED to the scientific community in over 150 articles in respected journals such as Science and Nature. But word of his discoveries reaches the general public, too, via the likes of USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, the BBC, and Investor’s Business Daily. “He is one of our truly outstanding scientists,” says Frederick Byron, the university’s vice chancellor for research.

What Lovley does is basic science, a phrase that means pure knowledge, pursued for its own sake. But this basic science has practical applications with enormous potential. In 1987, when Lovley was working for the U.S. Geological Survey, he made the astounding discovery of a new type of bacteria living in hot water vents deep underground. It later emerged that these microorganisms might provide a way to clean up some of our most deadly industrial pollution. More recently they showed promise as providers of a new, non-polluting way to generate energy.

The organisms Lovley studies are anaerobic, meaning that they live without oxygen. His 1987 discovery was a variety of Archaea that he named Geobacter metallireducens for its ability to metabolize iron. It was found in sediment in the Potomac River, but turns out to be common in sediments worldwide. The beauty of this bacterium is that it not only “eats” iron, but has an appetite for so-called aromatic hydrocarbons such as the pollutant toluene, and even toxic metals such as uranium. More recently, Lovley has found that mud-dwelling geobacters could generate electricity in the presence of graphite buried in river sediment. Now, with a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Lovley and his team will study the genome of his favorite microbe with the aim of making it even more useful.

“UMass has been really good to me,” says Lovley. When he came from the U.S. Geologic Survey in 1995, he couldn’t bring his equipment with him. The university provided him with a lab and plenty of space for his specialized equipment as well as for his research team, which is as big as some entire departments. “The big currency,” says vice chancellor Byron, “is space. You can’t do big science without big space.”

Reinforcing the UMass connection is the fact that Lovley and his wife wanted to be in New England. “We’re here for the location,”he says. “It’s a great area, despite its short-term problems.” When he was a kid, says Lovley, he wanted a job where he could work outdoors. He has relatives from Maine who are farmers. “Now that’s real work,” he says.


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