We are delighted to announce the winning MiniReview article for the 2017 FEMS Microbiology Letters & OUP MiniReview Award:
Autotrophic microbial arsenotrophy in arsenic-rich soda lakes
Authors: Ronald S. Oremland, Chad W. Saltikov, John F. Stolz, James T. Hollibaugh
This MiniReview Award is a joint effort between FEMS Microbiology Letters and Oxford University Press (OUP) to recognize the inspiring collaborative work being carried out in multidisciplinary research. We caught up with the lead author of the winning MiniReview, Dr Ronald S. Oremland, who is the Project Chief at the United States Geological Survey. He has dedicated nearly 40 years to understanding the microbial biochemistry of soda lakes and this MiniReview is an insight into this world.
Congratulations to you and your colleagues for winning the 2017 FEMS Microbiology Letters & OUP MiniReview Award! What was your winning paper about?
“We have been working on aspects of the microbial biogeochemistry of soda lakes in the western USA for nearly four decades. These are just inherently interesting, extreme environments, places one doesn’t usually think that can teem with microbial and invertebrate life. For the past 20 years we have focused on the microbes in these lakes that make a living by carrying out redox transformations of the toxic element arsenic, which these lakes are particularly well-endowed (in addition to boron).”
How did your science journey bring you to your current research interests?
“The best analogy for my career in general and for our work on soda lake arsenotrophy in particular, is more akin to that of a steel ball being whacked and bounced around in a pin-ball machine. It consisted of a series of random and sometimes painful collisions that often yielded interesting scientific observations. So, with the help of many collaborators along the way, I was able to pursue these studies of the microbial ecology of these extreme ecosystems.
Also, with the benevolence of the National Research Program of the US Geological Survey (USGS) and some funding from NASA’s exobiology program, we were able to sustain this effort over the years. But it certainly didn’t start out that way!
My early years at the USGS were difficult ones. Part of this was caused by supervisory folks who wanted me to assist ongoing work on aerobic, freshwater streams. This was despite my background in oceanography and anaerobic processes. But some colleagues got me interested in Big Soda Lake, Nevada, whose bottom water had been anoxic for nearly a century, so that was the route I eventually pursued. I initially focused on light hydrocarbons and methanogenesis, and later on I picked up on the arsenic story.”
How do you see your research having an impact in the future?
“It is well known that arsenic can kill you. It’s been used as a homicidal poison for millennia. In recent years it has been discovered that habitual, sub-lethal ingestion from arsenic-rich drinking waters eventually winds up making you sick, ugly, and smelly, a condition known as arsenicosis. Eventually, arsenicosis will lead to organ failure, cancer, and death.
Many millions of people globally are exposed to this hazard by drinking well water with high arsenic content. It appears that arsenic is mobilized in these aquifers from the solid mineral phase into solution by the actions of arsenotrophic microorganisms. But the arsenic is actually at relatively low concentrations, especially when compared to other metals like iron, so the involvement of arsenotrophs and their metabolism is difficult to follow.
Soda lakes are ideal environments to study arsenic microbiology owing to the great abundance of this element, stemming from active inputs (e.g. volcanic hot springs) in concert with a chemistry that keeps much of the arsenic in solution. And by understanding arsenic-microbial processes uncovered in these ecosystems, we may be able to devise solutions to arsenic contamination that involve bio-remediation strategies that were not known previously.”
What advice would you give to today’s early career scientists?
- “If you expect to attain great wealth or fame, you are in the wrong field. If you grow easily frustrated with the complexities of research and the many setbacks encountered, you should seek another profession. Going into the lab each day should be fun to do. If not, determine whether there is something wrong that can be fixed or leave if it can’t be remedied. But first figure out whether the problem lies within you or is external. Your temperament could be unsuited for research. It’s certainly not for everyone and there is no shame in learning that fact early.
- But if you can overcome these frustrations and figure out how to work around impediments, you are on the right track. Most of all, if you derive great joy from the endorphin-rush of serendipitous discovery, then you are in the right place. Follow your dream, attend conferences and make presentations. It is especially important to cultivate research collaborations that broaden your work or lead you and your co-investigators down new paths of discovery.
- Esteem your collaborations, collaborators, and technicians. These make life-long friendships. You will habitually be in the presence of many bright and some absolutely brilliant people, who will hopefully serve as role models to emulate.
- Most of all, you should look forward to going to work each day! You should enjoy the company of your peers, and relish the absolute fun of discovery.”
Interested in showing off your research and getting involved in the 2018 FEMS Microbiology Letters & OUP MiniReview Award? Find out more about this award and how to submit a MiniReview this year – we look forward to reading them!