Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Winter 2013/2014 - (Page 4)
PRESIDENT'S VIEW | SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON, PH.D.
Collaborations are key to discovery and innovation
study the smallest forms
of life on Earth, they
currently are standing at a frontier
so immense that they borrow from
the language of astrophysics to
describe it. They refer to the enormous number of yet-unclassified
microbes as the "dark matter" of
life. They point out that distant
stars are better understood than the
organisms in the soil underfoot.
The reason the full richness of
the microbial world has been perceived only dimly until now is an
interesting one: Only a minuscule
percentage of microbial species can
be cultured in a laboratory.
Most of them live in communities of intricate interdependency, and they cannot
grow in isolation.
In addition, microbes are
classified only poorly by their
form or metabolic features.
Beginning in the late 1960s, scientists were given a new kind of
sight with the sequencing of the
first bits of microbial genetic material-and a new trunk was added
to the tree of life, the archaea.
The next great moment of illumination belongs to alumna and
former trustee Dr. Claire Fraser
'77. In 1995, Dr. Fraser and her
team published the first complete
genome sequence of a free-living
organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenza. Dr. Fraser's team
rapidly sequenced other microbes
from laboratory cultures, yielding
significant insights into the evolution and nature of infections.
The science of microbiology
advanced yet again with the advent
of metagenomics-or the sequencing of genes from many microbial
species, directly from an environmental sample without having
to culture them. Metagenomic
analyses offered new evidence of
4 RENSSELAER/WINTER 2013-14
At Rensselaer, we enable interdisciplinary collaborations that help us to see
new frontiers-and to use the insights
discovered there to make the world a
the breathtaking diversity of microbial life.
Metagenomic studies also
revealed another fundamental
truth: Plants, animals, and humans
alike-we coexist with such rich
microbial communities that we are
viewed most accurately as consortia. In fact, the microbial cells in
to turn them into efficient factories
for the production of biofuels or
pharmaceuticals. Bacteria have a
facility called "quorum sensing"
that allows them to coordinate
their activities when they sense a
certain population density of their
own or another species. By genetically engineering new quorumsensing systems in two different
species of bacteria, Dr. Collins and
her students are creating a community of microbes that can divide
the labor of production for a new
fuel or medicine.
The advances I have described
would not be possible without computer scientists and sophisticated
bioinformatics to assemble and
analyze millions of pieces of fragmented DNA.
In fact, the data questions in
the field of microbiology are enormous and growing larger by the
minute. They include not just the
"Who is there?" question, but also,
an infinite number of "What do
they do?" questions, such as the
correlation between particular
microbes within the human microbiome and the progression of a
disease, or particular microbes in a
farm field and drought tolerance
in a crop. It was to enable just such
investigations that we created
the Rensselaer Institute for Data
Exploration and Applications, or
the Rensselaer IDEA, this spring,
and brought together Rensselaer
talents in every computational
field with scientists and engineers
addressing significant global
challenges (see article, page 16).
The great lesson of microbiology is that none of us stands in
isolation. We thrive only because of
graceful symbioses. This is particularly true when the endeavor is
discovery or innovation. At Rensselaer, we enable those interdisciplinary collaborations that help us
to see new frontiers-and to use
the insights discovered there to
make the world a better place.
A Lesson From Microbes
human bodies far outnumber the human cells.
Microbes perform essential services for us, such
as priming our immune
systems and helping us
digest food. Studies have
found that different
or microbiomes, correlate with different states
Now, new technologies allow for single-cell
genomics-or the ability to pluck
a single unculturable microbe from
the environment and to amplify
its DNA a billion-fold so that it can
be sequenced. Once again, information about heretofore undiscovered organisms is forcing the
tree of life to be redrawn. Within its
branches are new metabolic pathways, new proteins, potentially new
medicines, and new ways to boost
crop yields or improve industrial
At Rensselaer, we excel at finding applications for such beautiful
science. For example, our Vice
President for Research Jonathan
Dordick, Howard P Isermann Pro.
fessor of Chemical and Biological
Engineering, has used genomic
analysis to bypass the problem of
antibiotic resistance in deadly
bacteria such as listeria and MRSA.
Using lytic enzymes-or
enzymes that dissolve cell
walls-specific to each bacterium, Dr. Dordick, Dr. Ravi
Kane, the P K. Lashmet Pro.
fessor, and their team have
developed antimicrobial coatings that are remarkably effective at eliminating pathogens. Since
the bacterium uses this lytic enzyme
in its own process of cell division for
reproduction, it cannot develop
resistance to it.
The work of Dr. Cynthia Collins,
assistant professor of chemical and
biological engineering, engages the
social nature of microbes in order
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Winter 2013/2014
Table of Contents
Snapshot: Rensselaer at Petascale
President's View: A Lesson From Microbes
Feature: The Rensselaer IDEA
Feature: Solving Problems
Feature:Hyerloop, Meet Tubeflight!
Feature: 2013 Alumni Hall of Fame
One Last Thing
Video Clip: Rensselaer at Petascale (AMOS)––Exerpts from President Jackson and CCI Director Chris Carothers remarks made at the Rensselaer at Petascale announcement event (3:21)
Slideshow: GE Girls@Rensselaer (0:54)
Video Clip: Data Forest––Director Jim Hendler discusses the "data forest" at the Rensselaer IDEA annoucement event (2:59)
Vimeo Link: EMPAC Research–– A New Paradigm for Interactive Exploration of Data with Live Coding (23:50)
YouTube Link: Alumni Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (44:13)
Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Winter 2013/2014