Brian Hedlund, UNLV microbiologist

12 to watch in 2012

UNLV prof Brian Hedlund searches the Great Basin for microbes that could help advance biofuels and biomedicine.
Photo: Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services

When Brian Hedlund looks into the steaming depths of Nevada’s Great Boiling Spring, he sees the future of energy and clues to ancient questions about the universe. The key lies in what he doesn’t see—microscopic, heat-loving organisms called thermophiles that Hedlund calls “biological dark matter.”

A microbiologist at UNLV, Hedlund has dedicated his research to discovering new thermophiles, understanding their basic biology and sequencing their DNA to assess the potential for use in emerging technologies that could make renewable energy production easier, cheaper and virtually independent of dwindling natural resources.

He has partnered with American biotech pioneers and other leading scientists around the world, bringing in major funding from federal juggernauts such as the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation and NASA.

A grant of nearly $1 million recently awarded by NASA’s Exobiology program will support a collaborative effort led by Hedlund to assemble genomes from novel microbial groups in order to predict the metabolic capabilities that allow them to thrive in extreme conditions.

“It’s a really exciting time to be a microbial ecologist,” he says. “Most of the major lineages of microbial life on Earth have yet to be studied, but new research is showing that some are important for human and environmental health. They’ve eluded scientists because they’re difficult to grow—think orchids—but advances in technology, especially DNA sequencing and computing, are giving us access to many of these organisms for the first time.”

That’s why Hedlund stalks the Great Basin, prospecting for microbes like nuggets of gold. They hold hope of advancing biofuels and biomedicine, as well as data on early evolution that could reframe the enduring question of whether life exists beyond our planet.

“The unseen biodiversity in hot springs,” Hedlund says, “represents an enormous genetic reservoir, the surface of which has barely been scratched.”

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