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Biological Interfaces


A scientist examines bacteria isolated from the rhizosphere of a poplar tree as part of research on plant-microbe interactions.Source: ORNL Flickr siteORNL biological interfaces research examines the spatial relationships, physical connections, chemical exchanges, and interactions that facilitate the flow of information and materials between cells. This research encompasses three areas:

  • Plant-Microbe Interfaces
  • Biological and Nanoscale Systems
  • Mammalian-Microbiota Interactions

Plant-Microbe Interfaces

The goal of the Plant-Microbe Interfaces (PMI) scientific focus area (SFA) is to gain a deeper understanding of the diversity and functioning of mutually beneficial interactions between plants and microbes in the rhizosphere. The plant-microbe interface is the boundary across which a plant senses, interacts with, and may alter its associated biotic and abiotic environments. Understanding the exchange of energy, information, and materials across this dynamic interface at diverse spatial and temporal scales is the ultimate objective of the PMI project. Ongoing efforts focus on characterizing and interpreting such interfaces using systems comprising microbes and plants, particularly Populus (a potential bioenergy feedstock) and its microbial community. Understanding the inherent chemical and physical processes involved will facilitate natural routes to carbon cycling and sequestration in terrestrial environments, ecosystem response to climate change, and the development and management of renewable energy sources.

The PMI SFA integrates expertise in the areas of plant genomics, fungal and bacterial research, fungal ecology, analytical tool development, and computational biology and is based at ORNL, with collaborators at the University of Washington, Duke University, and INRA–Nancy in France.

Biological and Nanoscale Systems

This research focuses on the characterization, integration, and adaptation of natural and synthetic microbial systems across multiple length scales. A continuing emphasis is to characterize and understand how natural systems are organized at the nanoscale and how this organization contributes to biological function.

To support this aim, interdisciplinary researchers focus on technology development with specific interests in the following research areas:

  • Biological imaging — Current imaging projects evaluate microbial systems and seek to trace the location and quantity of membrane proteins, identify interacting proteins, and confirm biochemical networks.
  • Nanotechnology — These projects are centered on mimicking the physical and chemical characteristics of biological cells, developing biocompatible patterning techniques, and adapting biological routes to micro- and nanoscale material fabrication.

Biological and nanoscale systems research also includes comprehensive resources in molecular biology and molecular and cellular imaging and leverages the advanced fabrication capabilities of ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences.

Mammalian-Microbiota Interactions

Advances in DNA sequencing technologies are enabling researchers to study complex communities of microbes that cannot be easily cultured in a laboratory. ORNL scientists are using these technologies, such as metagenomic and single-cell genomic analyses, to investigate interactions between mammals and microbes, including some of the 100 trillion bacteria that live in or on the human body.  As part of the National Institutes of Health Human Microbiome Project, researchers are examining the complexity of human microbial communities and gaining new insights about their roles in health and disease. ORNL scientists and collaborators, for example, have identified a novel variation of the genetic code in the uncultured oral SR1 bacteria and have characterized the genomic diversity of this lineage using metagenomic analysis. Other uncultured human associated bacteria (some linked to oral disease) that were characterized by these approaches include deltaproteobacteria, TM7, Chloroflexi and Synergistetes. Novel strategies for cultivating such organisms are being developed based on genomic information.

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