Systems Microbial Ecology Laboratory

The Systems Microbial Ecology Laboratory provides facilities for conducting a broad range of ecological studies concerning soil, sediment, and aquatic microorganisms. These studies include the processing and analysis of water and sediment samples from Antarctic lakes and ice; culturing and characterizing of ice biota; and storing and processing periphyton samples from the western U.S.

Our lab produces results that are used in the management of the natural resources in the oceans and inland waters. Ongoing research is being used to help determine what factors are causing changes in Antarctic Krill populations (Krill being one of the last major fisheries in the Southern Ocean). The lab studies nutrient utilization and cycling in rivers of Nevada and how human disturbance and restoration practices deter or enhance the beneficial uses of these rivers. Last but not least, the lab studies microbial ecosystems and microbial adaptations that may help us understand the limits of life in polar environments. This work has direct implications for understanding the habitability and evolution of life on Earth and planning future exploration missions to Mars. As a consequence of our efforts, several natural products of microbes have potential of being developed and applied in biotechnology. For instance, cold adapted microbes often possess proteins that alter how ice crystals form. Such proteins are likely to be beneficial in the transportation and health applications.

State-of-the-art equipment for analyses of microalgae include standard microbiological instrumentation for culturing and observing bacteria, algae and protozoa; including centrifuges, balances pH meters, fume hood, fluorometer (Turner Designs 10-AU), spectrophotometer (Crary 300), light and temperature-controlled incubators, DO and pH electrodes, water quality sondes (YSI), vacuum lines and pumps, vacuum manifolds and filtration apparatus, autoclave, drying and ashing ovens, refrigerator and freezer, and two gas chromatographs with FID and TCD detectors. A research epifluorescence microscope (Olympus BX-60 with cryostage) is equipped with Digital cameras and integrated to digital image analysis system. The positive-pressure clean rooms are temperature controlled for ice core processing and sample preparation. Freezer rooms dedicated for the cultivating of low temperature-brine biota are outfitted with backup power and alarm systems to maintain cold conditions necessary for long-term cold-oriented research.

Algae and Biofuels Research

Algal-based biomass production systems have gained attraction as potentially viable sources of energy for alternative fuels development. Rapid growth and oil content of algae grown within enclosed and open systems may produce large oil returns. Research on the tailoring of temperature, light, and nutrient conditions available for these systems for specific algal strains, may help minimize future costs and thus optimize and accentuate returns. Systems engineering for different strains in different seasons may help in reducing water requirements, enhance carbon capturing capacities and help mitigate potential environmental effects associated with large-scale bio-processing operations. Research within DRI’s Systems Microbial Ecology Lab seeks to provide the technical knowledge that may enable viable and environmentally friendly algal-biomass productions systems – especially as they may be developed in conditions relevant to Nevada and the semi-arid southwest region of the US.


Chris Fritsen, Ph.D.
Earth and Ecosystem Sciences