University of Delaware
delware environmental institute

UD research team wins prestigious $1 million Keck Foundation grant to unlock microbial "black box"

Even in sediment cores extracted more than a mile beneath the ocean floor, you’ll find them. Tiny organisms only a cell in size chug along ever so slowly. Jennifer Biddle, a marine microbiologist at the University of Delaware, often wondered why these microbes living deep in Earth’s crust look so similar to microbes up here at the surface, in forests and streams. What would it take these "locals" to adapt to a much slower lifestyle down in the depths?

Such pondering inspired a new research project that Biddle is leading, which has just been awarded a prestigious $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. She and co-investigators Adam Marsh and Thomas Hanson, all faculty members in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, will peer deep into the lives of microbes to find out how their genes get toggled off or on.

Understanding how environmental factors such as stress and nutrition can flip the switch on specific genes — a hot scientific field known as “epigenetics” — is a major driver of precision medicine and its personalized treatments for cancer and other diseases in humans today.

Yet little is known about how such environmental factors can shape a microbe’s destiny. Unlocking that black box could help humanity in many ways, according to Biddle. Consider finally gaining the upper hand in battling the persistent plague of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or better harnessing microbes to make clean energy.