An Israeli laboratory has scooped two prestigious grants totaling four million euros over the past two months to help it advance groundbreaking research into the way microbes might be used to reduce humanity’s damage to the planet.
Microbes, which include bacteria and fungi, were once seen primarily as vectors of disease; today, they are appreciated as the ultimate alchemists and unsung heroes of nature.
Professor Itzik Mizrahi, of the Mizrahi Laboratory at the Life Sciences Department of southern Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev, studies the way microbes interact with and influence their environment. That might be the soil or the stomachs of animals, including humans.
His aim is to engineer communities of microbes to reduce climate-warming methane as well as to create energy and treat waste in more sustainable ways.
Earlier this month, his proposal was one of two out of 14 submitted by seven Israeli research institutions to secure funding from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The ministry, which seeks to strengthen German-Israeli research cooperation, awarded him a five-year grant of 1.5 million euros. His German counterpart will be Prof. William F. Martin, of Heinrich-Heine-University in Dusseldorf.
An additional sum of 2.5 million euros over five years will begin in 2021 in the form of a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council. The ERC, which gave Mizrahi a 1.5 million euro starting grant in 2015, focuses on studies that are expected to break the boundaries of scientific knowledge.
Microbes are the living things, invisible to the naked eye, that disappear our waste, both inside and on the surface of our bodies and in the natural world in general. They produce enzymes that recycle waste (from dead skin cells on our hands to fallen tree trunks in forests) by breaking it down into its constituent chemical parts. In the cycle of nature, these can be reused to create and maintain new life.
Microbes are key players in other natural processes, too, such as the carbon cycle, in which carbon moves from the atmosphere into organisms (think teeth and bones) and down into the soil or the seabed, before reentering the atmosphere. They are able to transform atmospheric nitrogen into a chemical form that plants can absorb (and that animals, like us, can then eat). From strengthening the immune system to helping clouds to drop rain or snow, microbes appear to be busy everywhere.
Much is already known about the process of photosynthesis, which enables plants to grow. Far less is understood about the way in which plants — and specifically the cellulose they contain — are broken down by microbes when the plants die.
Unlocking the secrets of how these tiny workers function may open up new possibilities for using, tailoring and engineering them to perform a variety of sustainable tasks.
Mizrahi has already established that microbes, like animals, function in certain hierarchies. While the species of microbes might vary between habitats, the structures of microbial communities are always the same, he says, whether they are working in the soil, the human digestive system, or the rumen — that part of the stomach in cows, sheep and goats where microbes break down food.
In previous studies, the Mizrahi group found that microbes in a cow’s rumen affect not only how much methane the animals release, but also the quantity and quality of their milk.
In order to learn more, Mizrahi teamed up with animal scientist John Wallace of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, to examine both the microbes and genomes of 1,000 dairy cows of different breeds, in four countries.
They discovered that 39 species of microbe that were responsible for cutting methane and improving the milk lived in cows with a particular genetic profile.
The next challenge will be to engineer cattle with the precise genetic makeup needed to host the beneficial microbes.
In another project, Mizrahi joined scientists from Ecuador, Germany and the US to examine the gut microbes that help some marine iguanas on the Galapagos Islands to avoid starvation during El Nino events.
During El Nino, which currently hits every two to seven years and whose frequency is expected to increase with global warming, the cold, nutrient-rich waters that normally sustain the iguanas’ diet of red and green algae warm up, causing the invasion of a species of brown algae that replaces the red and the green. Some 80-90 percent of iguanas can perish because they lack the gut microbes to digest this brown invader.
Mizrahi is now working on developing the rules for engineering microbial communities that can be used for different purposes. It is because of their microbes that ruminant animals emit some 100 million tons of global-warming methane into the atmosphere each year. Adding the right microbial mix to cattle feed in countries such as China, where the dairy industry is burgeoning, could, for example, contribute to a major drop in world methane production.
Also on the horizon is the engineering of microbes and microbial communities to more efficiently break down and convert plant matter into carbon neutral biofuels such as ethanol.
“We hope that we can use this funding to actually make a change by harnessing microbial activities to benefit humanity and decrease its harmful impact on our planet,” Mizrahi said.