Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology
The Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology focuses on developing microbiological systems that capture or develop renewable resources and also prevent or clean up environmental pollution. Our team combines engineering approaches with microbiology and chemistry to reclaim polluted water and generate energy from waste substances. Center researchers combine engineering with microbiology, molecular biology, and chemistry in order to gain an integrated understanding of how microbial ecosystems work and can be controlled to reclaim polluted water, generate energy from waste substances, and improve public health and sustainability.
Microorganisms, as part of their normal life, do things that provide services to society and improve environmental quality. They degrade contaminants that pollute water, air or soil. They transform waste materials into valuable renewable resources. All of this they do in natural communities of different types of microorganisms living and working together. The microorganisms, the communities, and the services are the subjects for the Center for Environmental Biotechnology.
The Center performs research that ranges from fundamentals of biochemistry, genomics, and microbial ecology to field testing of technologies it develops. The Center’s strategy is to integrate basic science with engineering and fundamentals with applications in all aspects of its research.
The first step toward success within the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology is being able to “think like the microorganisms,” which means performing scientific research to understand what the microorganisms do and what constitutes a good environment in which they can do it. Fortunately, there are many tools to help us analyze the microbes. DNA and RNA detection and analysis methods aid in the identification of microbes present, and discover their native functions. Chemical tools offer the ability to measure the impact of the microbial communities on their environments. The consequences of microbial metabolism are that they inevitably alter their environment in some way. These chemical tools allow us to understand how the microorganisms use molecules in their environment to make energy.
Another set of tools includes mathematical models that systematically and quantitatively represent the community members, their reactions, and how they affect each other and their environment. Modeling uses computers, and is a tool for integrating different types of knowledge. When we integrate information from all the tools, we attain a deep understanding of the biological and chemical activity in microbial communities.
The second step toward success is designing technologies that “work for the microorganisms so that they work for us.” The environmental biotechnologist provides conditions so that the “right” microorganisms – the ones that perform the right services – thrive and stay within the community. This is the natural, ecologically based recipe for success with environmental biotechnologies.