Derek Lovley, microbiology, recently honored as one of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Einstein Professors for 2018, is touring that country this month to give lectures on topics related to electro-microbiology and protein nanowires at five different institutions, as part of the academy’s year-long celebration of the research honor.
The professorship, one of just 20 awarded each year across all the sciences, will also include an exchange of students and investigators from Chinese institutions to the campus.
Lovley says, “Interest in the basic science and practical application of electric microbes and the protein nanowires they produce is growing. I’ll be talking about the natural role of these microbes in diverse environments as well as how they can be harnessed to produce sustainable electronic materials and other practical applications. One of the environments in which these microbes are very important is methane-emitting soils, like rice paddies. They are also key players in the conversion of organic waste to methane, an area in which there is substantial interest in China right now.”
Lovley isolated the first Geobacter species 30 years ago. Over the years it has been the source of many “firsts” in microbiology, he recalls. It was the first anaerobic microorganism found to use iron oxide in soil to grow, much as humans use oxygen. It can also grow on contaminants like benzene and metals such as uranium and has been studied as a possible tool for cleaning up contaminated environments.
Geobacter produces electrically conductive filaments called “microbial nanowires” to electrically connect to other species, like methane-producing microbes, or it can wire itself to electrodes to produce electricity, Lovley points out. This finding has led to new strategies for environmental clean-up and for living, self-powering sensors.
The protein nanowires Geobacter produces are a “green” electronic material, eliminating the high energy investments and toxic waste associated with fabricating traditional electronic materials. Lovley is using synthetic biology approaches to tune the properties of the protein nanowires for diverse electronic applications, including wearable biomedical sensors.
The microbiologist’s lecture tour will take him to the Institute for Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, Peking University, Yantai Institute of Coastal Zone Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology and the Harbin Institute of Technology from May 9-18.
“Many of my former graduate students and postdocs are now successful researchers in China,” Lovely says. “China is investing heavily in science, and there is so much potential there. They have the resources and I’m happy to help the two countries have stronger science ties,” he says.