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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"A Vision for Microbiology in the Next Century"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
The 99th General Meeting of the American
Society for Microbiology
Chicago, Illinois

May 30, 1999

I am delighted to be here this evening. It's a privilege and a pleasure to serve as your keynote speaker for the ASM centennial.

I remember my first ASM meeting, when I was a young graduate student. My advisor, Dr. John Liston, called me at home the Saturday before the meeting and said, "I've come down with the flu; you'll have to give our paper Monday morning."

It happened to be an invited paper, and my fellow speakers included the late, great Roger Stanier, Michael Douderoff, and a few other giants.

Well, a few days ago, Stuart Levy called me, and said in a stricken voice, "Vice President Gore can't speak at the opening plenary--You'll have to do it!"

You can see that 40 years later history does repeat itself!

Our society is a century old, and we microbiologists indeed have stunning achievements to celebrate. I suspect, however, that even more revolutionary changes are in the offing.

A hundred years from now, we might scarcely recognize our discipline. That's why I would like to seize this opportunity to look not behind but ahead--to set forth the outline of a vision for microbiology in the next century.

Microbes are everywhere-we've heard them called the "unseen majority." An estimated 5 million trillion trillion bacteria live on Earth.

The astonishing abundance of microorganisms, along with their key roles in biogeochemical processes, make them essential to the edifice of our knowledge of life.

Microbiology is even taking hold in the public psyche. We need look no further than our local movie theaters to see it.

I know a few of you have already braved the long lines to watch "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace."

The movie introduces us to beings known as "midi-chlorians." These are microbial entities that live in all of us. As such, they demonstrate the power of microbes to unite all life.

This can mean one thing and one thing only. As microbiologists, the force is really with us.

We need to expand our vision both in time and space. Ultimately, this vision links biology to all of science and engineering. Now is the time to inject a new force into the community.

To illustrate how our approaches must embrace all scales, from the minute to the massive, I'd like to show you a very short video clip from the IMAX film titled "Cosmic Voyage."

The film takes us on a "cosmic zoom" from outer to inner space. It depicts the unity of our cosmos, and suggests a framework for future discoveries across the board. The journey takes us through 42 orders of magnitude.

The links between all aspects of science and engineering, at all scales, are strengthening all the time.

As John Muir wrote early in our century, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

This sweeping and integrated vision requires us both to visualize and to envision.

New tools such as information technology help us to imagine, to see in astonishing new ways--whether outward into the beginnings of the universe or inward into the tiniest particles.

New ways of seeing out into the universe--of penetrating the dust, seeing clearly through the distortion of our own atmosphere--have propelled astronomy into a golden age.

Just recently we learned that our universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and we're coming ever closer to putting a number on that rate.

Our goal is nothing short of understanding the biosphere. Microbiology will play an increasingly central role as a kind of guiding beacon for biology.

On a grander scale, biology itself will magnify that role, drawing the other sciences together at its interfaces.

My term for this integrative research strategy is "biocomplexity." This emerging approach explores the biological and other interactions in our planet's systems.

To understand biocomplexity, we must gather information at scales ranging from the sub-atomic to the astronomical.

Let's briefly survey some of the tools and discoveries that frame this vision.

Today's sophisticated tools help us trace our way back to our earliest tools. Last month the cover of Science Magazine featured what appears to be the earliest evidence, found in Ethiopia, of stone tool use.

The antelope bone shows the earliest documented marks made by human ancestors removing fatty marrow. These fossils date from 2.5 million years ago.

The site also yielded cranial remains of a new species of Australopithecus. The tools spurred a dietary revolution that let human ancestors migrate beyond Africa.

Today our tools are taking us on new momentous journeys. We can take our own cosmic zoom down to the atomic and molecular levels of matter and of life.

Here we see fluorescent peaks, each letting us follow a single molecule in a complicated environment--the environment of condensed matter. This particular image appeared in another Science Magazine cover story this past March.

We move to the next level--entire genomes. We sequenced the first bacterial genome four years ago. Now we know the entire genomic sequences of 22 organisms--all but one a microbe.

With microarrays, we can learn about expression of every gene in a cell or tissue at once.

Understanding protein structure and function at the genomic level is the next great frontier.

At every step are massive data sets that require tremendous computing power. Bioinformatics helps us visualize vast amounts of data at the Protein Data Bank. We're beginning to be able to trace the flexing and folding of proteins in the timeframe of nanoseconds.

The data bank exemplifies another welcome trend: interagency cooperation, between NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy.

As our vision broadens to embrace complexity, we discover new mechanisms in genetics.

In this study of Salmonella genes, researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara have found that the genes turn on inside a mouse, and off outside.

The results have broad application to the development of vaccines and antibiotics.

The gene--called the Dam gene--was actually first found in E. coli some years ago, through fundamental research supported by NSF.

Complexity and chaos and other tools of mathematics are taking biology by storm. We learn anew the old adage that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Complexity in fact draws the disciplines together.

As we move up the organization of life to communities and ecosystems, the mathematics of complexity help us to understand the flocking of birds, the schooling of fish, and the pendulum swings in wild populations.

We find another rich and unexpected reservoir of microbial diversity in the hindgut of this termite.

It's estimated that termites as a whole contain 2.4 X 1017 prokaryotes. This diversity ultimately drives the decomposition and recycling of our forests.

Here we focus in on the termite's hindgut region showing the density of the protozoa, which contain unique genera and species.

Complexity likewise helps us approach the myxobacteria. This group is found all over the world and functions as a predator in the soil ecosystem.

Myxobacteria stand out for their surprisingly social behaviors such as rhythmic rippling and production of fruiting bodies.

Recently, a compound was found in a myxobacterium that shows promise as a cure for certain cancers.

As we move up to the ecosystem level, we find a major piece missing: knowledge of the role of microbes.

NSF has a new program to support study of microbial diversity at established research sites. These include our Long-term Ecological Research network, other laboratories, and field stations.

This week's cover story in Science Magazine highlights biofilms--a superb illustration of a new and comprehensive approach to microbiology.

The lead author is Bill Costerton from the Engineering Research Center at Montana State University.

We're learning that microbes act much differently in nature than when isolated in laboratory culture.

It's true that we've known about the slimy films formed by bacteria ever since Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first looked at plaque from his teeth beneath his early hand-held microscope.

But only collaborative research has revealed the true nature of biofilms--as they really are microbial societies.

Knowledge about biofilms has a wealth of applications, from dentistry to heart surgery to wastewater treatment. The CDC implicates biofilms in 65% of human bacterial infections. That's a revelation.

State-of-the-art imaging tools let the research team see the bacterial architecture: mushroom-shaped towers with channels to transport waste and water. It's a primitive social community, if you will.

Such studies spawn a new perspective. Instead of trying to eradicate microbes, we'll attempt to manipulate and engineer their behavior.

Other information technologies are helping us to see and to collaborate across the country. Researchers from Old Dominion University in Virginia link up with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

This "virtual environment" is constructed from actual Chesapeake Bay data. Collaborators thousands of miles apart can interact in this same virtual arena.

At another NSF facility, the San Diego Supercomputing Center, there's another way to visualize. When virtual reality is not enough, we can produce solid models that look and feel like wood.

This new way of seeing offers a tool for all disciplines. Here, the hands are holding a model of a protein called LH-II.

Seeing on a grander scale--seeing the Earth from satellites--has been key to my own research on climate and health.

Remote sensing of sea surface temperature and sea surface height has helped us to trace the ecology of the bacteria that cause cholera.

Microbiology is forging new frontiers at all scales. We're finding life everywhere. Subsurface microbes--those below the ocean or under the earth's surface--could constitute up to half or even more of the biomass of the planet.

These huge numbers suggest a great capacity for mutation and genetic variation.

Let's visit a few of these frontiers to meet our fellow travelers. In South Africa, at more than 3 kilometers down into the Earth, researchers from Princeton University found a veritable zoo of types of microbes, some of which are in biofilms.

At these depths, thermophilic and other microbes were found in rocks 2.9 billion years old.

Evidence of microbial activity has been found in oceanic basalts by a team including Steve Giovannoni of Oregon State University.

Surveys suggest that bacteria have colonized much of the upper crust under the ocean.

Antarctica is another frontier yielding life in abundance. In the region there known as the Dry Valleys, lakes have permanent ice-covers.

Tiny oases of life pit these ice blocks, which were carved from two meters down. Here we find nutrient-rich microzones for a "microbial consortium," according to John Priscu from Montana State University and his team.

One of the lakes--Lake Bonney--yielded this cyanobacterium, stained red and blue, which fixes atmospheric nitrogen.

In a far different environment, beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet, lies Lake Vostock, the largest sub-ice lake known to exist.

This relief map of Antarctica's ice topography, derived from satellite data, shows the lake's location. The lake water is estimated to be one million years old. We expect it to contain ancient bacterial life.

The challenge now is to design a probe that could sample the lake without contaminating it.

Besides revealing life in unexpected places, Antarctica serves as a model for exploration of life beyond Earth.

Here is Europa, Jupiter's icy moon. Now a dream, but perhaps not far off, is an attempt to join the disciplines to search for evidence among the stars that an explosion of diversity might have occurred elsewhere in space and time.

We're exploring the promise of Europa, where liquid water seems to lie below the surface.

The surface of Mars is pictured here in black-and-white next to the Mississippi River, which is in red. Mars may once have harbored liquid water as well.

To explore the tremendous biocomplexity of our planet and beyond, we'll need to collaborate on every front, with every discipline and at every scale.

Information technology will speed our search in the coming century--taking us places we could never reach by remaining inside our own disciplines.

To realize this vision is not going to be easy. A great irony of our current era is that as a nation, we have let research investments wither--just as the payoffs have blossomed.

Over the past two decades, we have seen science and technology drive job growth and creation.

This reminds us that educating our future work-force belongs at the forefront of our vision. We've also seen "high-tech" products double as a share of total US trade.

At the same time, we've seen the Federal investment in R&D fall as a share of our economy. To me that defines what it means to eat your seed corn.

We're ready to do 21st century science. Now we need 21st century investments to go with them.

We're on our way. Our cosmic voyage through the various scales of life has one more stop. I would like to show you life at one more frontier--a brief video of microorganisms issuing forth from rocks on the ocean floor.

This footage was provided by John Baross from a dive on the Alvin submersible.

We're looking at organic "floc" material issuing from an undersea vent along the Juan de Fuca Ridge, about 250 miles off Washington State.

The patterns of material spewing forth recall our trip across the orders of magnitude, from quarks to stars.

These geothermal vents are called "snowblowers" for obvious reasons.

There are microorganisms associated with the floc material, including ones that grow in temperatures above 90 degrees centigrade.

This is more evidence that we've barely begun to explore the diversity of life beneath the surface of our own planet. Could this material be coming up from the depths of the earth's mantle?

That's another puzzle for the next century that will take all of our capabilities to solve.

Many capabilities and contributors produced the work I've discussed, and this list is not complete. I regret not being able to name everyone, but I thank you all.

Collectively, we are more than the sum of our parts, and together we can see much farther. The philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin summed up the ability of science and engineering to refine our vision when he wrote,

"The history of the living world can be seen as an elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen." [The Phenomenon of Man, 1955].

Let me close by saying that I look forward to working with all of you to fulfill this vision of microbiology--and science--for the next millennium.

Thank you.



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