Spring 2016 – GoMRI Researcher Interview with Dr. Jack Gilbert

Dr. Jack Gilbert. Photo provided by Jack Gilbert.

Dr. Jack Gilbert. Photo provided by Jack Gilbert.

(From Spring 2016 Newsletter) Dr. Jack Gilbert from the University of Chicago – Argonne National Laboratory answered a few questions about his RFP-II project, Creating a Predictive Model of Microbially Mediated Carbon Remediation in the Gulf of Mexico.

1. Thank you for talking with us! Tell us a bit about your research. What are the goals of your project?

The goals of our project were to examine the network of microbial interactions that were influenced by the oil spill. Initially we were focused on trying to extrapolate these predicted interactions (who eats what from whom, etc.) across the gulf, but it quickly became apparent that the necessary data did not exist. We then pushed this into assembling the key genomes of the organisms and then determined the influence of the oil spill on microbial metabolic activity.

2. What is your background and how did you get involved with this kind of work?

I am a microbial ecologist; I examine how bacteria interact with each other, and with their environment, and what this means for the ecosystem in which they live. The opportunity to apply microbial ecology to this environment was too good to pass up. Understanding how the oil spill disrupted the ecosystem at the scale of microbial ecology was a fascinating project and gave me the opportunity to contribute to the potential for developing strategies to augment recovery from such spills.

3. What do the bacterial genomes tell you?

Like a human genome, a bacterial genome is the blue print for what that organism is capable of doing. Therefore by sequencing the genome of the bacteria we can figure out what it likes to eat, what kind of chemicals it can degrade, even what environment it most likes to live in.

4. What are some of the most significant or exciting findings of your work?

We determined the slew of bacteria that are lying in wait, ready to respond to the oil spill. The abundant taxa that were initially mentioned in the first studies were really just the tip of the iceberg. We have uncovered a huge number of highly diverse and specialized organisms. We have also shown how these organisms change the cycling of key nutrients, e.g. nitrogen, when the oil hits. This helps us to understand the repercussions on the wider systems ecology of these environments.

5. Bacteria are playing a role in helping mitigate or clear up the oil? How are they doing that?

The bacteria use the hydrogen and carbon in the oil as a food source – oil is made of these hydrocarbons, which are actually a rich source of nutrients for many types of bacteria. The Gulf of Mexico is full of these oil-loving bacteria; most of the time they are quite rare, but when you have a natural oil seep or a manmade oil leak, they have bonanza!

6. If funding were not an issue, what would you add to your project?

I would like to have a genome for every organism in the sediment of the gulf – and then reconstruct their metabolic responses to the oil invasion, essentially creating a program that helps to predict the ecosystem’s response to the pollution.

[Back to the Spring 2016 Newsletter]