Academia Nuts: Ken Nealson

Courtesy of USC Dornsife

Courtesy of USC Dornsife

Professor Ken Nealson is the Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies at USC. Over the last 45 years, Nealson has had a hand in many fields. Technically, his lab is part of the earth sciences division. However, it is also a environmental microbiology lab, a biogeochemistry lab, and a geoelectrochemistry lab. The more niche the science gets, the longer the name it’s given.

I recently had the chance to visit the lab, and dive into the world of microbiology. It was true naiveté on my part to think that an hour in the lab would help me grasp 45 years of Nealson’s research —the last time I took a science course, President Obama was in his first term as president. And so, as I entered the foreign, tiny world of microbes and bacteria, I quickly descended into the swirling maw of scientific illiteracy.

Thankfully, Nealson is both a passionate scientist and a patient teacher. Back in 1988, he discovered Shewanella Oneidensis. To the layman, or the philosophy student, it sounds like a foreign language (perhaps Latin). For Nealson, it’s a bit more simple than that. “Bacteria don’t do anything but chemistry, and lots of it,” he said. And in the Nealson lab, there’s lots of bacteria.

Lab Manager Pournami Rajeev walked me in a circle around the lab (it takes up the entire 5th floor of Stauffer Hall), and the first thing I noticed was Professor Nealson’s likeness posted on the walls, in meme format. Undoubtedly put up by Nealson’s grad students, the posters bear captions like “I’m watching you,” and “get back to work!” The researchers are a casual, friendly bunch. It’s not uncommon to find them chatting in the conference room, or going out to lunch together. The social setting more resembles a geeky science club than a quiet science lab.

But in many ways, Nealson’s lab matched up with my mental schema of what a science lab should look like: beakers and pipettes aplenty, machines humming and whirring, colored wires connecting science to more science. And yet, what seemed like high-tech equipment to me is, in fact, rather dated. The experiments conducted in this lab are reliant upon traditional tools, and the tried-and-tested organizational system of sticking post-it notes on everything reigns supreme.

Surprisingly, the lab contains only one microscope. So how can the researchers see what is happening in their experiments? After all, they are focused on bacteria, and bacterial behavior is unobservable without the aid of a microscope. But you don’t need to see the bacteria to see how they affect their environment. The basic idea is that you can isolate a certain bacteria and place them in a chemostat — a tank that is sort of like an aquarium, but for bacteria. The chemostat keeps a stable solution that can be manipulated by the researchers: the chemostat maintains environmental homeostasis, so researchers can isolate and alter a single variable, such as the amount of nutrients in the solution, without compromising the experiment. Then by examining how the bacteria interacts with the environment, they can learn about how bacteria grow under different conditions.

In addition to a few chemostats, Nealson’s lab boasts an autoclave, a centrifuge, chromatography instruments, two spectrophotometers, and many other gadgets. If this seems like gibberish to you, then we are alike. The science laboratory is an alien environment, a Wonka-esque playground with microbes instead of candy.  

Because so many bacteria samples move through the lab, the researchers need storage space; for this, they rely upon two different kinds of freezers. One is kept at -80ºC, and is used for long-term storage. At this temperature, it is too cold for the bacteria to grow and multiply, but not cold enough to kill them. It basically freezes them in the state they were in when placed in the freezer. When Rajeev cleans the freezer, she layers five pairs of latex gloves to avoid freezer burn.

The other freezer is kept at 4ºC, and it is used for short-term preservation. It’s a walk-in freezer, about the size of a standard bedroom, and on the hot September day I spent in the lab it was rather refreshing to spend a couple minutes in there. The walls are lined with various solutions, all labeled with handwritten notes. Many of the jars appear to be filled with water, but really they are teeming with life.

All the contraptions are dedicated to studying this microbial life — it’s invisible to the naked eye, but the scientific implications are too big to ignore. Nealson’s Shewanella discovery was most important because it is the first documented bacteria that ‘breathes rock.’ This means that instead of using oxygen for respiration, as mammals do, Shewanella uses manganese.

It was a radical finding, and Nealson faced a large pushback from the scientific community. It goes against all conventional wisdom — “the textbooks said it wasn’t possible,” he told me. It was an uphill battle for Nealson to demonstrate his findings to the scientific community, but after years of study and many peer-reviewed papers, rock-breathing bacteria are now the focus of much scientific inquiry.

In Nealson’s lab, graduate students are studying how Shewanella and bacteria with similar breathing techniques can be used to solve environmental problems. From turning waste into water to producing energy, Shewanella has demonstrated remarkable potential to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Professor Nealson is excited, and a little bummed out by the promising research. “This is an important discovery,” he says. “I wish I had discovered it earlier.”

So it goes. Scientific research is a long, arduous process. Sure, Nealson first recognized Shewanella in 1988, but we are still a ways from fully understanding how it works. Biological processes, even in simple organisms like bacteria, are incredibly complicated and require many repetitions of experiments to actually gain a sophisticated understanding. Huge discoveries in science don’t happen in an instant — they must be confirmed and re-confirmed by the scientific community at-large in order to be accepted as theory. It’s a rigorous process, one that requires a tenderness and care for your subject.

Nealson displays this tenderness when he speaks about his work. He’s sometimes called “the father of Shewanella,” and he is one proud papa. He even likes to refer to the bacteria as ‘Shewie.’ Like any father, he wants to spend time with his microbial progeny, and see it reach its full potential.

Hopefully, he will still be around to see Shewie’s graduation — from impossible discovery, to textbook example.

Kevin Litman-Navarro is a senior majoring in philosophy and minoring in classics. His column, “Academia Nuts,” runs every other Thursday.