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PSU research receives $750,000 grant

A new $750,000 grant from the Keck Foundation affirms that Portland State occupies a topmost rank in the scientific research field.

The W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, Calif., has awarded the grant to PSU’s Center for Life in Extreme Environments. The funding will support research in the study of life in nature’s most inhospitable places. The PSU center involves researchers from a number of different disciplines, working together under the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

This is significantly the first grant to PSU from the Keck Foundation, said Gayle Schneider, director of Corporate and Foundation Research. The Keck Foundation supports grants in medical research, science and engineering.

“This foundation likes to find scientists who are top in their field,” she said. “Getting this project funded is really exciting. This is a huge compliment to the reputations of our faculty. It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for scientists.”

Among faculty most involved are David Boone, professor of biology; Sherry Cady, assistant professor of geology and Anna-Louise Reysenbach, assistant professor of environmental biology. The university is currently hiring other members for the research group, Schneider said.

The bulk of the grant will go to developing a field-based instrument for the study of biology in natural environments. There will also be an emphasis on building the university’s genomic capabilities. Genomics concerns study of the genetic chromosomes contained in the cell. It is considered one of the frontiers of modern science.

Cady will be the only person at PSU involved in producing the new instrument. It will be built in collaboration with colleagues from Montana State University. The instrument is called a mobile biofilms unit.

“It will allow us to cultivate natural microbial communities from extreme ecosystems within a controlled chamber,” she said. “We can then monitor this chamber using various types of microscopes and spectroscopic instruments.” This will allow researchers to study microbial growth and behavior in different conditions.

“Our timeline is two years, after which time we will have built both a prototype and a compact field unit that can be taken to our field sites using backpacks,” she said. Much of the center’s research occurs at remote places. Cady hopes to deploy the prototype by the end of this year.

Reysenbach and Boone will use the remainder of the grant to acquire instruments for the genomics facility in biology, she said.

Schneider said acquisition of the grant proved a multi-phase project. A letter of inquiry on the subject was followed up when she, Cady, Boone and Gary Withers, vice president for University Relations, visited foundation headquarters last March. (Withers’ responsibilities involve financial support projects.)

The foundation sent a representative to PSU for a site visit in August. The university was invited to submit a proposal to be due Sept. 15. This gave the university team very few days to refine its proposal, but it met the deadline and the grant approval followed.

Daniel Bernstine, PSU president, hailed the grant as another sign of recognition for Portland State’s research capabilities.

“The center continues to be a source of pride for our campus and community,” he said, “proving nationally recognized leadership in a critical area of scientific investigation.”

The faculty involved also expressed pleasure. Cady said, “The new instrument will allow us to take the laboratory into an ecosystem anywhere in the world to study complex biogeochemical interactions. The Keck Foundation’s support provides an opportunity for both PSU faculty and students to advance the field of biogeochemistry.”

Biogeochemistry is the study of chemical transformations, caused by microbes, which may have significance in earth study.

Reysenbach also pointed to the biological significance of the work. “Enhancing genomics capabilities at Portland State will help our researchers to better understand and more fully characterize the genetic composition of microbial life,” she said.

The research of the center has involved deep-sea hot vents in the Indian Ocean, hot springs in Yellowstone Park and the depths of a frigid lake in Russia. This type of research could lead to applications in bioremediation, which has to do with environmental cleanup. It also can be applied to medical and pharmaceutical developments and lead to consumer and industrial products.

The PSU Marketing and Communications office recalled that center faculty have been featured on CNN and in such publications as Science magazine, Nature magazine, Time, The Christian Science Monitor and the Oregonian.