for National Geographic News
They breathe rust, clean up polluted groundwater, generate electricity, and may harbor clues to the origins of life. That's a lot for one family of microscopic bugs, but don't be surprised when Derek Lovley wows the world with another wonder from the Geobacter genus of bacteria.
"When we think we have hit the last of the big discoveries, something else comes along," said Lovley, a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The microbes' metabolism is unique: They use metals to get energy from food in the same way humans use oxygen. In 1987 Lovley discovered Geobacter metallreducens in some iron-rich mud he scooped up from the Potomac River.
In the 17 years since that discovery, Lovley and his colleagues have found more than 30 species in the bug family, sequenced the genomes of several, and filled scientific journals with the details of new insights.
Lovley collaborates with scientists around the world, and his lab buzzes with more than 50 researchers. Most recently, Lovley and his colleagues sequenced the genome of a Geobacter species that can generate electricity and cleanup groundwater contaminated with uranium.
"Never underestimate the abilities of the microbial world," said Tim Magnuson, a microbiologist who worked in Lovley's lab before moving to Idaho State University in Pocatello.
Magnuson believes that the Geobacter species and a number of other metal-reducing bacteria discovered since Lovley's seminal 1987 find are the just the beginning of what promises to be an exciting scientific journey into the world or microbes with unique metabolisms.
"The more we look, the more we discover. We have and will discover organisms that are not at all related to Geobacter but can carry out that kind of metabolism. It is a huge frontier."
When Lovley embarked on his academic journey into the sciences, all he wanted to find was a good job in the outdoors. But as he pondered what made the world go around as an undergraduate biology major at the University of Connecticut in the 1970s, things began to change.
"It started to be apparent that these microorganisms account for a lot of biomass [living matter] on Earth and are big drivers for the environmental and ecological processes," Lovley said. "So I went to grad school and tried to learn microbiology."
After receiving his Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 1982, Lovley took a job with the United States Geological Survey studying how microorganisms affected groundwater in the Chesapeake Bay.
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