Pakrasi to head Energy Department ‘grand challenge’

WUSTL researchers will partner with the W.R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory (EMSL) at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to embark on a “grand challenge” — an innovative, multidisciplinary project — to explore scientific enigmas in microbiology.

Himadri B. Pakrasi's Grand Challenge Project will focus on the amazing cyanobacterium *Cyanothece*, the only bacteria with a circadian rhythm, or biological clock.
Himadri B. Pakrasi’s Grand Challenge Project will focus on the amazing cyanobacterium *Cyanothece*, the only bacteria with a circadian rhythm, or biological clock.

One project, led by WUSTL’s Himadri B. Pakrasi, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, and PNNL laboratory fellow David Koppenaal, Ph.D., will investigate the biology of membrane proteins in cyanobacteria, important microorganisms involving photosynthesis in the world’s oceans.

Choosing Pakrasi as the leader of the Grand Challenge Project marks the first time that the Energy Department has chosen a university scientist to lead such an endeavor in a National Laboratory.

“This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” Pakrasi said. “If successful, it could open the doors for similar other projects.”

Another project, not involving Washington University, is led by PNNL laboratory fellows and chief scientists John Zachara and Jim Fredrickson, is probing the fundamental question of how subsurface metal-reducing bacteria interact with and transfer electrons to the mineral surfaces on which they live.

More than two dozen researchers from 16 institutions will participate in the three-to-five-year studies, with a PNNL investment of $2 million a year for each grand challenge, or around $10 million for the life of the projects.

Investigators anticipate that the grand challenges will yield new information on issues ranging from how energy and nutrient transport occurs between microbes and their environment, to how microorganisms influence Earth’s soil and water chemistry, with potential applications that include groundwater remediation, carbon sequestration and energy generation.

Pakrasi is leading a Grand Challenge Project in membrane biology that will use a systems approach to understand the network of genes and proteins that govern the structure and function of membranes and their components responsible for photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation in cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).

His co-principal investigator is Bijoy K. Ghosh, Ph.D., professor of electrical and systems engineering. This project will also involve the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Purdue University, Saint Louis University and the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology in Shanghai, China.

“This is a fabulous opportunity for the Department of Biology, Arts & Sciences and for the visibility of Washington University to be the center for such a project,” said Ralph S. Quatrano, Ph.D., the Spencer T. Olin Professor and biology department chair.

“Dr. Pakrasi has assembled a great team with broad expertise focused on a specific problem that will have far-reaching effects and applications in the future. Our department is very proud of his leadership and scientific capabilities.”

A systems approach integrates all temporal information into a predictive, dynamic model to understand the function of a cell and the cellular membranes. Cyanobacteria make significant contributions to harvesting solar energy, planetary carbon sequestration, metal acquisition and hydrogen production in marine and freshwater ecosystems.

Specifically, Pakrasi’s project will focus on the amazing cyanobacterium Cyanothece, a one-celled marine organism, the only bacteria with a circadian rhythm, or biological clock. In particular, Cyanothece has the uncanny ability to fix oxygen through photosynthesis during the day while fixing nitrogen through the night.

Incredibly, even though the organism has a circadian rhythm, its cells grow and divide in 10-14 hours.

“This is a mystery in biology,” Pakrasi said. “Why does an organism do this and yet have a circadian rhythm? It must be that it gains something. We intend to find out.”

To unravel the mystery, Pakrasi and his collaborators will be growing Cyanothece cells in photobioreactors, testing cells every hour to try to understand its light cycle at different times of the day. With the combined diverse expertise of 14 different laboratories, the scientists and engineers will examine numerous biological aspects of the organism.

The results of this project will provide the first comprehensive systems-level understanding of how environmental conditions influence key carbon fixation processes at the gene-protein-organism level.

This topic of study was selected because it addresses critical Energy Department science needs, provides model microorganisms to apply high throughput biology and computational modeling, and because it takes advantage of EMSL’s experimental and computational capabilities.

EMSL’s unique and broad-ranging experimental and computational facilities are central to the approach for the projects.

“EMSL is already one of Department of Energy’s most successful national user facilities,” said Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Energy Department’s Office of Science, “so it is a fitting place to attempt such ambitious grand challenges, where we can pair large groups of our most talented scientists with our most sophisticated analytical tools to look at very specific and vexing scientific problems.

“We are hopeful that this approach will become a model for collaborative research at EMSL and other DOE facilities.”

EMSL Director Allison Campbell said, “We are bringing together international expertise to advance an area of science in ways that haven’t been possible before. A combination of world-class minds, methods and capabilities uniquely positions PNNL and EMSL to deliver answers to the grand challenge questions these teams are addressing.”

The William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory is located on the PNNL campus. Since its inception in 1997, the 200,000-square-foot facility has played host to more than 5,500 visiting scientists, professors and other individuals who requested use of the facility’s resources through a peer-review proposal process.

These individuals — commonly referred to as “users” — come to EMSL from academia, other research and development laboratories and industry.

PNNL is an Energy Department Office of Science facility in Richland, Wash., that solves complex problems in energy, national security, the environment and life sciences by advancing the understanding of physics, chemistry, biology and computation.

PNNL employs more than 4,000 people, has a $650 million annual budget and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab’s inception in 1965.