100 years of soil microbiology
75 years of biochemistry
Archived article from Apr 5, 2002
By Laurel Van Leer
It is an irony of science that the very dirt we wash off our hands in the name of health holds a treasure trove of microbes that can cure disease and render toxic waste harmless. For decades, world-class microbiologists and biochemists at Rutgers have been discovering microbes in the soil -- and in other natural places -- that have had a profound effect on human health and the environment.
In celebration of a century of "dirty" discoveries, the department of biochemistry and microbiology at Cook College is presenting a two-day symposium, "100 Years of Soil Microbiology and 75 Years of Agricultural Biochemistry," April 12-13, at the New Jersey Museum of Agriculture, Cook campus. Speakers include the co-discoverers of actinomycin, streptomycin and neomycin; the presidents of the national microbiology societies; and Rita Colwell, the director of the National Science Foundation.
Rutgers struck research gold with the soil antibiotic streptomycin, identified in 1943 by a research team led by Professor Selman Waksman, who received the Nobel Prize for his work. His original laboratory site, in what is now Martin Hall, has been refitted as a conference and seminar room. The room was chosen by the American Society for Microbiology as the first place to be honored by its National Historic Milestone Site program; the president of the society, Abigail Salyers, will be on hand to present a commemorative plaque during the conference.
"Clearly, streptomycin changed the face of medicine," says Professor Douglas Eveleigh, the D. and L. Eveleigh and D. and L. Fenton Chair in Applied Microbiology, but that is hardly Rutgers' only claim to fame.
Rutgers pioneered soil science, creating the first department dedicated to the discipline in 1901. The earliest work examined soil fertility and how microbes could improve the soil for farming. Rutgers researchers also were among the first to study the transformation and fixation of nitrogen in soil and the role of microbes in the carbon and sulfur cycles.
One of the most revolutionary outcomes of the early days was the knowledge that soil, as opposed to plain dirt, was a community of organisms, says Eveleigh. Some soil organisms cannot survive without others, a complex interdependency that is still being studied.
Today, microbiologists and biochemists at Cook College, including Gerben Zylstra, Tamar Barkay and Max Häggblom, are searching for the genes that allow some microbes to thrive in soil or water permeated with toxic waste.
Eveleigh, who seeks to use microbes to digest wood waste into clean-burning gasohol, sees a bit of poetry in that. "It's been a full cycle, from studying how microbes help make soil fertile to using microbes to clean up the soil and restore fertility," he says.
And what will the future bring? "To date, only 1 percent of soil microbes have been cultured and there are millions of undiscovered microbes," notes Eveleigh. "The possibilities are endless."