Text Size
NES Video Chat: Microbial Girls in a Microbial World
February 17, 2011
[image-60]Being a scientist doesn't always mean spending your days locked away in a lab somewhere. For these NASA microbial ecologists, going to work might mean climbing aboard a research vessel for an open ocean expedition, collecting marine and soil samples in the Andes, Mexico, or even in Europe and Africa! Students were able to find out what it's like to hunt microbes around the globe with Angela Detweiler and Dr. Lee Bebout in a live chat held Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. A chat transcript is now available.

Dr. Leslie Prufert-Bebout
Microbial Ecologist at NASA's Ames Research Center

Born in Norman, Okla., Lee Bebout spent most of her childhood exploring streams and lakes. She would spend hours building temporary habitats for small fish and tadpoles and seeing how the water flowed differently depending on the rocks and sediments. She was fascinated by all of it: the rocks, the water, the plants and the animals. It's no wonder that this fascination led her to a bachelor's degree in biology from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. This degree was soon followed by a master's in geology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The subject that managed to capture it all, however, was microbial ecology. Microbial ecology, or the relationship of microorganisms with one another and with their environment, is the subject in which she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

What are Bebout's words of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in science? Click here for answers to this and more!

Angela Detweiler
Research Associate at NASA's Ames Research Center

Angela was born in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. As the daughter of a U.S. Park Service ranger, she grew up playing in creeks, hiking and camping. A passion for the outdoors led her to pursue a bachelor's degree in ecology and environmental biology from Appalachian State University and a master's degree in biology, with a focus in aquatic ecology, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her work has led her to study unique aquatic ecosystems in Alaska, Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico. In 2009, she joined the Microbial Ecology Lab in the Exobiology Branch at NASA Ames to work with microbial mats. Microbial mats are complex communities composed mostly of bacteria and archaea and are one of the oldest known ecosystems on Earth.

NASA Explorer Schools Registration
If you're a K-12 educator in the U.S. or a U.S. territory and haven't registered yet for the NASA Explorer Schools project, take a few minutes and complete the NES registration form to become part of NASA's exciting K-12 gateway to the future.

Chat Transcripts

› Go to Chat Transcript for Dr. Leslie Prufert-Bebout
› Go to Chat Transcript for Angela Detweiler

Chat Transcript for Dr. Leslie Prufert-Bebout

Lee_Bebout(P) Hello and welcome to the NES Web chat. We'll begin at noon EST. In the meantime, feel free to submit your questions in the text panel at the bottom of this window.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) Do microbial studies have good scope in the future?
Lee_Bebout(A) The potential for more microbial studies is huge. We have barely scratched the surface in our understanding of different environments. So yes, there is a big future in microbial studies.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) What is microbial compost? Is it safe?
Lee_Bebout(A) Yes, it is basically safe.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) Do microbes increase or decrease global warming?
Lee_Bebout(A) It works both ways! Some microbes take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and process it. Some microbes produce carbon dioxide Temperature changes as a result of global warming may upset the balance, and some people worry that the increase in temperature could cause further increases in carbon dioxide and/or methane production.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) Do microbes too have their own habitat
Lee_Bebout(A) Yes, microbes have many different habitats.

sundar32(Q) Hello, Lee. Is the fungus formed below earth good to eat?
Lee_Bebout(A) Hello. I don't know if those are good to eat or not. Things like truffles that grow underground are good to eat; there may be some fungi below ground that are not good to eat.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) There are many microbes that are stuck to rocks, which ... don't get discharged from the rocks even when hit by huge waves. So my question is, how do they get food?
Lee_Bebout(A) The way they get food is often by electrostatic charge. Molecules in the water get attracted to that surface. That's how they get food. If water is left out in a bucket, for example, the inside surface of the bucket will get slimy when microbes grow there.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) In which part of the world can we find the most varied species of microbial creatures?
Lee_Bebout(A) You cannot say what part of the world, but it is more what temperature, salinity or other environmental factors, and how stressful they are, and how often they change or stay the same. Generally, in an extreme environment there is less diversity than in a stable ecosystem.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) How does microbial resource management prevent excess methanogenesis?
Lee_Bebout(A) In order for methanogenesis to occur, conditions would need to remain relatively oxygen-free. To prevent methanogenesis, you would need to raise the levels of oxygen present.

Rachel-NES(Q) What is the most interesting place that you have studied microbial mats?
Lee_Bebout(A) Up in the Andes at high altitudes. I did not expect to see so much. With high altitude (14,000 feet) and low water, there were microbial mats everywhere around the lakes.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) How and why do sea creatures like oysters, mussels and barnacles depend on tides for food?
Lee_Bebout(A) The tides keep the water moving, which brings nutrients to the microbes, and the microbes are the food for the sea creatures.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) What is the main role of the International Society of Microbial Ecology? Does NASA help them, indeed?
Lee_Bebout(A) It's hard to narrow down the society's work to just one main role. It is a place to share research results and educate. I'm not aware of a formal relationship with NASA.

John_Halpin(Q) Where do you find microbes?
Lee_Bebout(A) Microbes can be found just about everywhere. They're in dirt, stream water, ocean water - we even have microbes inside ourselves. Microbes are literally everywhere!

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) What's the basic difference between microbial fuel and biofuel?
Lee_Bebout(A) Microbial fuel is fuel from things like algae and bacteria, and biofuel includes anything from biological sources like big plants and microbial fuel.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) Do microbes produce any energy? If yes, how strong can it be?
Lee_Bebout(A) Yes, microbes can convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into fuel. In fact, billions of years ago microbes produced most petroleum-based fuel we are using now. This is a current area of research: to try to find out how much energy they can produce. We also need to know how much energy it costs to grow the microbes, and this involves engineering costs.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) If microbes have the power to convert the CO2 and sunlight into fuel, (they) can really cut down global warming, right?
Lee_Bebout(A) Possibly. They can take up carbon dioxide, but if you burn all that fuel, you're putting the same amount of carbon dioxide back into the air. The good part is you're recycling carbon dioxide, instead of pulling new carbon dioxide from the ground and releasing it into our atmosphere. Some are hoping we can use microbial research to sequester or decrease levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) What are the most likely candidates for microbial environments in our solar system outside of Earth?
Lee_Bebout(A) Titan, Europa and maybe some deep locations where there is water on Mars. I'm not a planetary scientist, so that's not my area of expertise, but those are some that I've heard are good candidates.

Rachel-NES(Q) What's the most exciting part of being a NASA scientist, and what are the key career choices to becoming a NASA scientist?
Lee_Bebout(A) Every scientist will have a different answer. But as a microbial scientist, when I saw the Earth from space, I realized how connected the atmosphere and the water and the biosphere and all living things are.

adcunningham(Q) What happens when a certain food web of microbes is destroyed?
Lee_Bebout(A) It will definitely affect the food web of the larger creatures. For example, in a marsh ecosystem where there are things like bacteria and small algae, they provide food for microscopic shrimp, snails and small fish. The shrimp, snails and small fish are food for larger fish and birds. This will also affect us.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) What is microbial fuel? How is it useful? Can it be compared … to bio-diesel?
Lee_Bebout(A) There are many types of microbial fuels because there are many types of microbes. Some microbes produce precursors to gasoline, kerosene and diesel; other microbes can produce things like hydrogen or methane, which can also be fuels. There are many other compounds that microbes produce. How these fuels are important is an important area of research, and we are currently figuring out how we can grow them and how much energy it would cost us, and if production can be done in ways that are clean and sustainable.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) How is microbial ecology important to the studies of evolution?
Lee_Bebout(A) Ecology teaches us how microbes live in different places and how they can adapt and change as their habitat changes. Evolution is the study of adaptation.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) Does any type of gene transfer occur between microbes? Will this lead to any new breed?
Lee_Bebout(A) I'm not a molecular specialist, but, yes, gene transfer happens a lot. It takes more than a single gene transfer to make a new species.

Akarsh_Valsan(Q) What advice do you have for students who want to pursue a career in science?
Lee_Bebout(A) You need to get basic education in fundamentals of math, chemistry and physics. Then read as much as you can in different areas to see which one excites you the most.

Alicia(Q) Have you ever experienced barriers or challenges as a female scientist? If so, how did you deal with it?
Lee_Bebout(A) The only time I had challenges was when I was very young in elementary or middle school. Sometimes I heard that girls shouldn't be taking a science class. That was a long time ago. My parents encouraged me and explained that it was wrong thinking and girls can study anything they want. I am lucky to live at a time when I haven't experienced many barriers. Those barriers are going away and shouldn't prevent girls from going into science if they are interested. The generation before me had a real challenge, but science careers are opening up for women.

Alicia(Q) Will microbes cause any health disorders, or any other diseases?
Lee_Bebout(A) Oh sure, there are a lot of microbes that cause disease. Pneumonia is a big one, but there are many more examples.

AkarshValsan(Q) What types of questions are you trying to answer when you are doing field work?
Lee_Bebout(A) I want to understand what the environmental conditions are that the microbe needs in order to grow.

Alicia(Q) Do you remember any special teachers or others who influenced your path to becoming a scientist?
Lee_Bebout(A) I had a great chemistry teacher in 10th-grade in California. My father was transferred to Memphis, and I had a great biology teacher in junior high. Then in college I had two or three great teachers.

Alicia(Q) Have you ever been surprised by something you found when doing your field work?
Lee_Bebout(A) Yes, I have. We were doing some research in the Bahamas several years ago, and we noticed that the sand was getting glued together to form rocks. I was surprised to find out that one of the cyanobacteria was tunneling into the sand grains and gluing them together. For almost twenty years, geologists thought this was a chemical reaction, but we found it to be microbial!

Alicia(Q) How might students study microbial mats in their classroom?
Lee_Bebout(A) Check out http://microbes.arc.nasa.gov. It has a page for educators with lesson plans for how to grow microbial mats and other projects. Right now we are hoping that students will find microbial mats in their own yard or out hiking, take pictures, and send them to us. Microbial mats and ecosystems are all around us, so we are encouraging students to look around and find them.

lana(Q) What are some of the fun parts of being a scientist? What parts do you enjoy less?
Lee_Bebout(A) The fun parts are getting to ask questions and then try to figure out why things happen. When I was younger in my career, I got to do a lot of work outside, which I loved. I got to collect samples from rivers, islands, and ships and travel all over the world. Sometimes I enjoy writing down my results and sharing them, and sometime I don't. It's kind of like doing a book report. Ordering supplies and keeping track of our budget also takes time away from doing the fun part, but we have to do that part so we can keep doing the fun part!

Chat Transcript for Angela Detweiler

Angela_Detweiler(P) Hello! Welcome to this afternoon's NES chat about microbes. If you have questions about microbes or a career at NASA, please type them in the text window below and click on the ASK button. I'll answer the questions as fast as I can and post the answers back to the larger chat window.

John(Q) Can microbes live in extreme environments?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Yes, we have found that they can live and thrive in extreme environments. One place is in hypersaline ponds in Baja, Mexico. They do very well because there are no predators!

John(Q) What's a microbe?
Angela_Detweiler(A) A unicellular organism like bacteria that cannot be seen with a naked eye. You need a microscope to see it.

Alicia(Q) What was your favorite location to study: AK, Brazil, Venezuela or Mexico?
Angela_Detweiler(A) My favorite place to study would have to be Venezuela because not only were we spending time looking for microbes in a pristine stream, we could take a swim in the stream after we finished. The backdrop of the Andes mountains made this a beautiful place to study.

Alicia(Q) Were there microbes living in the salt pond you are standing in, shown in your picture?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Yes, there were microbes living in the salt pond I was standing in.

Alicia(Q) How old were you when you decided to be a scientist? What influenced you?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Probably as early as 4th- or 5th-grade. I grew up in the outdoors; my father was a park ranger.

Alicia(Q) What kind of tools do you use to study microbes other than microscopes?
Angela_Detweiler(A) We use many analytical instruments like a gas chromatograph to measure the quantities and types of different gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, methane and, in some cases, ethane. We use a spectrophotometer to measure the density of microbes in a culture. We also use an ion chromatograph, which can measure nutrients present in a culture.

John(Q) Why did you want to study microbes? Why not something else? What's your interest in them?
Angela_Detweiler(A) It sort of just happened by chance. I began studying aquatic food webs, including fish and algae. It wasn't until I got this job that I became interested in this whole new world of smaller microbes.

Alicia(Q) Do you have a favorite microbe?
Angela_Detweiler(A) My favorite microbe is one called Spirulina, and I like it because of its spiral shape. It is cyanobacteria, which means it is a bacteria, but it is edible because of its high protein content.

Alicia(Q) What's the hardest thing about being a scientist? What's the most fun thing?
Angela_Detweiler(A) One of the hardest things is the paperwork but also the repetitive lab work - things I have to do over and over. The fun part is the field work, being able to go outside, travel and compare different sites. As a scientist, you get to go to places that are off-limits to the general public.

Alicia(Q) What kinds of things do you do when you are not hunting microbes?
Angela_Detweiler(A) I'm into mountain biking, and just recently I learned how to surf. I also really enjoy listening to music.

John(Q) I've seen pictures of big groups of microbes. Why do they live together in such large groups?
Angela_Detweiler(A) There are some that are unicellular, and some that live in colonies. For some microbes, what one produces the other uses, kind of like a symbiotic relationship.

Alicia(Q) Is Spriulina really something you eat? What does it taste like?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Yes, it is something you can eat. It is found in Odwalla's Superfood. When you look at that juice, the green color comes from the Spirulina. But if you were to eat it by itself, it would taste like dirt.

John(Q) Is there any research about using microbes as a food source for astronauts while in space?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Yes, there have been many studies done about using algae to supplement the astronaut diet. JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and ESA (European Space Agency) have both looked at it as well. Much of that research stopped in the last decade, as our ability to take food into space improved. However, people are starting to think about it again for long-duration or deep space missions because there is no way to take all the food with you in order to survive. You'd have to grow some (food). Algae is a good candidate because it is so easily grown.

John(Q) I've seen green drinks in grocery stores that say they have organisms in them. Are the organisms microbes? Why do they put them in the drink?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Some of the drinks have microbes like Spirulina or Chlorella because they are a good source of protein.

John(Q) Can microbes be harvested and used to produce something like plastic or petroleum?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Petroleum is generally derived from microbes that have been under intense heat and pressure deep in the Earth, and we are currently trying to see if we can turn microbes into petroleum without it requiring years of pressure. Some microbes have been found to be precursors for plastics, but I'm not totally sure about that process.

John(Q) What are future areas of microbial research?
Angela_Detweiler(A) A lot of what we've been doing has to do with biofuel production. A lot of people are interested in deriving lipids from microbes as well as methane and hydrogen. There are also a lot of other science disciplines interested in microbes as well - studying microbes at the molecular level or studying their biogeochemistry. It is becoming interdisciplinary!

John(Q) What is it about microbes that allows them to live in extreme environments like high heat areas?
Angela_Detweiler(A) They are able to modify some of their protein structures and enzymes, which allow them to adapt to high heat environments.

John(Q) Do microbes have a place in any medical field?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Yes, they do. For example, penicillin is a microbe and is used as an antibiotic. Microbes do play a big role in medicine.

John(Q) I've seen pools in Yellowstone that have a lot of different color bands in them. Are these bands the result of different types of microbes? What causes the colors?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Different microbes have different colors. The colors are a result of different pigments.

John(Q) Do microbes hibernate in the winter?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Some of them make spores when conditions are too dry or there is not enough food. They will shut down and can make a spore that waits for decades or even hundreds of years until conditions are habitable again.

John(Q) Is a "red tide" a pool of microbes?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Red tide is caused by different types of organisms. One of them is called Pfiesteria; it is a dinoflagellate. It is considered a microbe, and it can cause harmful toxins in the water that can kill fish.

John(Q) How big and how small are microbes?
Angela_Detweiler(A) They can be as big as 20 to 40 microns. Microbes can be as small as 1 micron. The colonies are the bigger sizes. Individuals tend to be between 1 and 10 microns.

Alicia(Q) Do you have any upcoming microbe hunting trips planned?
Angela_Detweiler(A) Just a proposal to look for microbes in a place where there is hardly any water: for example, the Atacama desert. We will be looking for microbes in halite or rock salt.

John(Q) Has any evidence of microbes been found on Mars?
Angela_Detweiler(A) In terms of evidence, we are looking for biosignatures, and there has been some evidence of methane found in the Martian atmosphere. Living organisms or a by-product of some nonbiological source could have produced it.

Alicia(Q) Isn't the Atacama desert thought to be lifeless?
Angela_Detweiler(A) It's considered to be one of the driest deserts on Earth. But that is why we hope to go this summer - to see if we can find any organisms living in the rocks!

John(Q) What's a normal day for you at NASA?
Angela_Detweiler(A) There is so much going on in a normal day. I could be analyzing a sample for gases. I have two interns that I spend some time training; I spend some time attending meetings or talks. So there is a little bit of lab work and learning from seminars.

John(Q) Recently, there was something in the newspaper about microbes that can eat arsenic. Were you part of that research?
Angela_Detweiler(A) There No, the person who discovered this microbe has a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Her lab is located nearby with the USGS. She did come here to NASA Ames last week to give a talk on her findings. Her work could potentially impact my work because if what she found is true, then we could be looking for organisms in places that don't have the things we believe microbes need, such as phosphorus.

sundar55(Q) Which was the strangest microbes you touched ... and why?
Angela_Detweiler(A) The microbial mats in Baja, Mexico, are pretty amazing. They look and feel like a block of tofu! They have a thick, congealed texture that holds together very well!

John(Q) Why is NASA studying microbes?
Angela_Detweiler(A) We are in the astrobiology department. We want to understand the origin of life. Microbial mats are some of the oldest ecosystems. Understanding the origin of life can help us understand what to look for when we look for life on other planets.

Angela_Detweiler(P) I would like to thank everyone for joining me in today's chat about microbes.

Image Token: 
Dr. Lee Bebout
Dr. Bebout takes a sample from an algae raceway in the rooftop greenhouse at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Image Credit: 
Image Token: 
Angela Detwieler
Angela Detweiler works in the Microbial Ecology Lab in the Exobiology Branch at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
Image Credit: 
Image Token: 
A woman in a SCUBA suit collecting a sample from a salt pond
Angela Detweiler searches for microbial mats in a salt pond in Baja Mexico.
Image Credit: 
Image Token: 
A multi-colored crystal
A microbial mat grows in this sample of gypsum.
Image Credit: 
Image Token: 
Page Last Updated: August 22nd, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator