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UT-ORNL Governorís Chair for Microbiology and Civil and Environmental Engineering Frank Loeffler.

The National Science Foundation recently announced support for a variety of studies aimed at understanding Earth’s biodiversity, including a project led by UT’s Frank Loeffler.

Loeffler, the joint UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Microbiology and Civil and Environmental Engineering, is researching the role of microbes in controlling emissions of nitrous oxide—also known as laughing gas—from the ground.

“As nitrous oxide destroys the ozone layer and is a greenhouse gas, gaining a better understanding of how it is released naturally and its overall effect on the environment would be a step toward better controlling it,” said Loeffler, who holds UT appointments in the Department of Microbiology in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Tickle College of Engineering, as well as an adjunct appointment in UT’s Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science and an appointment in ORNL’s Biosciences Division.

Loeffler said consuming nitrous oxide is a main characteristic of certain soil-based microbes but scientists still don’t understand how such microbes control the release of gases.

He said our current knowledge base has been built on a few model microorganisms but we lack key understanding of the diversity of genes and microbes that control greenhouse gas emission in natural and engineered environments.

In addition to better understanding how microbes function, the team, which includes Kostas Konstantinidis of Georgia Tech and Wendy Yang and Robert Sanford of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, hopes to develop training and research opportunities for students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, including experiential programs for undergraduates at each institution.

“One of the other promising things is that this work will also take a look at the other side of the issue and how it affects soil health,” Loeffler said. “Nitrogen is one of the major influences on soil productivity, so learning how to control its loss is beneficial to both the farmer and the environment.”

The study was one of 10 new projects that the NSF announced it was backing, all centered around biology, ecology, and other environmental sciences.

“This research is unique in that multiple dimensions of biodiversity are addressed simultaneously,” said Joanne Tornow, acting assistant director of NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences.

In addition to the work being done at the university level, the project includes a component aimed at the general public through what are known as K-to-gray programs, providing outreach to students and citizens from kindergarten age through retirement.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,