PULLMAN, Wash. — They live in highly unpleasant places, like the bottom of oceans, dry desert salt flats or ice-covered lakes in Antarctica. Because they spend their lives in such inhospitable places, this group of microorganisms called extremophiles has developed unique biological processes that could be key to solving vexing problems in a large variety of areas, from pharmaceuticals to environmental cleanup.

Researchers at Washington State University have joined scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) and Concurrent Technologies Corporation to establish the new Consortium for Extremophile Research. The group is dedicated to the research and development of new commercial products and processes that use the unique capabilities of these extremophilic microorganisms.

“The consortium proposes to identify, understand and apply the unique attributes of extremophiles and their enzymes to meet nationally significant needs,” said Brent Peyton, assistant professor of chemical engineering at WSU.

In particular, the group aims to conduct research that will have economic benefits, contribute to reducing dependence on foreign oil and providing low-cost energy; and have a net positive environmental impact. Furthermore, interdisciplinary education of the next generation of engineers and scientists is a major goal of the group.

Projects researchers are investigating the following:
–Using alkaline-loving bacteria to dispose of industrial wastes,
–Understanding climate change through the study of methane-forming bacteria in the Arctic,
–Decontaminating radioactive wastes from surfaces, and
–Producing plastics from agricultural crops using acid-loving microbes.

“It’s rewarding to team with WSU and CTC since we’ve conducted successful collaborative projects for many years,” said Bill Apel, microbiologist and science fellow at the INEEL. “And, since WSU has had a role in managing the INEEL for the past three years as a member institution in the Inland Northwest Research Alliance — solving grand challenges together — using discoveries in nature’s biodiversity couldn’t be more exhilarating.”

The three institutions have significant expertise that makes them valuable partners. At WSU, for instance, researchers are leaders in using such microbes and their enzymes for catalysts in chemical reactions for environmental applications. INEEL researchers have demonstrated expertise in extremophile microbiology for a variety of bioenergy, national security and environmental applications—including removal of radioactive contaminants from surfaces. Concurrent Technologies Corporation, a national nonprofit organization, based in Johnstown, Pa., specializes in getting research transferred and applied in the public and private sectors.

“Putting this consortium together builds something bigger than the sum of our already strong programs and will bring the research that our partners do all the way from its start in the laboratory to broad application in the marketplace,” said Daniel R. DeVos, President and CEO of CTC.

Technical Points of Contact:
Brent Peyton, Ph.D., WSU Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering, 509/335-4002, bmpeyton@che.wsu.edu
William Apel, Ph.D., Scientific Fellow, Biotechnology Department, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, 208/526-1783, waa@inel.gov
Edgar Berkey, Ph.D., Vice President and Chief Quality Officer, Concurrent Technologies Corporation, 412/826-6834, berkeye@ctc.com