CSU, Chico Microbiologist Collaborates in $1.2 Million National Science Foundation Award

Date: 10-15-2007

Gordon Wolfe, a microbial ecologist at California State University, Chico, is part of a collaborative $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study organisms living in the boiling acid pools and hot acidic lakes of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Wolfe joins biologists Patricia Siering, Ph.D., and Mark Wilson, Ph.D., of Humboldt State University, the lead institution on the grant, and Ken Stedman, Ph.D., a molecular and cell biologist from Portland State University.

The award will fund a five-year collaboration to establish a microbial observatory at Boiling Springs Lake, a 52 °C, pH 2 volcanic lake in Lassen park that is the largest hot spring in North America. The scientists will investigate basic ecological questions concerning the abundance, diversity, activities and interactions of these microorganisms and viruses in their natural habitat. Wolfe has installed a buoy to sample lake temperatures this winter, and a group of undergraduate engineering students at Portland State are designing a remotely operated vehicle to map the lake’s physical structure and to sample thermally distinct regions of the lake to assess biological and chemical variation at various temperatures and locations.

“The study of extremophiles,” said Wolfe, “provides insight into the biodiversity and evolution of life on Earth, aids in understanding how organisms adapt and thrive in diverse environments, and helps identify where and how to search for life on other planets.” Extreme environments such as Boiling Springs Lake are ideal for the study of microbial ecology because they harbor simple model communities with less diversity than is observed in non-extreme habitats.

Wolfe’s expertise is microbial eukaryotes – organisms that have a nucleus. In Boiling Springs Lake, these include fungi and protists, a diverse group of single-celled organisms formerly called algae and protozoa. Wolfe has been working at Boiling Springs Lake for five years, involving his students in field trips to the lake and supervising students in independent research.

Wolfe, who also does research in marine and terrestrial microbiology, came to CSU, Chico in 2000 from Western Washington University, where he was a visiting scientist. His other current research projects include examining chemical signaling and defense among marine protists with colleague Suzanne Strom, Western Washington University, and lipid biology of marine algae with colleague Fred Prahl, Oregon State University. He also has had numerous grants to improve classroom and curricular education.

The Boiling Springs Lake grant will provide independent scientific research opportunities for approximately 100 undergraduates at the three universities and will be integrated into classroom research projects that reach hundreds more. The grant also provides funds for yearly research symposia for the investigators, high school, undergraduate and graduate students, park personnel and community members. In addition, students will be involved in producing a color brochure for park visitors, highlighting the structure, chemistry and biology of this unique lake, and giving the public a deeper appreciation of the microbial world.

The CSU, Chico Research Foundation provides general and fiscal management for this CSU, Chico’s portion of this National Science Foundation project. The non-profit foundation, incorporated in 1997 as an auxiliary to the University, manages more than 850 projects each year, many staffed by student and faculty researchers.