Michelle O’Malley, 33
Understanding a tricky kind of single-cell creature could help reduce the cost of biofuels.
Chemical engineer Michelle O’Malley is trying to figure out how an understudied type of microbe could be harnessed to make better biofuels or pharmaceuticals. O’Malley works with anaerobic microbes—organisms that can’t live in the presence of oxygen, making them extremely difficult to cultivate. In fact, her lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the only one in the United States that is able to study the behavior of anaerobic microbial communities.
Why go to all the trouble? Because these organisms are more efficient than aerobic ones at chewing up plant material and secreting something else, like a biofuel. They also create fewer unintended by-products, which are costly to deal with.
O’Malley is particularly interested in how different kinds of anaerobic microbes function in concert. Sometimes in such communities, whether in landfills or our guts, microbes work together to attack substances in their midst, while other times they interact peacefully with their environment. Their behavior, it seems, is determined by a complex communication system: microbes can physically attach to each other and exchange nutrients, or they can secrete chemicals into the environment that another microbe can metabolize.
Understanding this process is the first step in getting anaerobic microbes to churn out more cost-effective fuels or pharmaceutical products—and things we can’t yet imagine. After all, O’Malley explains, many of the enzymes produced in anaerobic microbe communities “perform chemistries never seen before.”
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