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Environmental Microbiology & Biotechnology

Microorganisms drive the planet’s ecosystems. Microbes have also been harnessed to perform many biotechnological processes using the same genetic and metabolic arsenal that they utilize in the wild. We are interested in understanding how microbes control environmental processes and how they can be used in biotechnology, particularly bioenergy generation. Our major emphasis is environmental biotechnology, where we study the process of anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion is a waste-treatment system used for high-strength organic wastes that utilizes microorganisms to break down the waste while simultaneously producing bioenergy (methane and hydrogen). We use genomics, ecological and biochemical methods to study how the microbial consortia function.

The primary resource for this research is a 10,000-gallon, pilot-scale, thermophilic anaerobic digester (TAD) and an associated research facility on campus. Research has primarily focused on practical issues concerning anaerobic digestion, such as improving the efficiency of TAD and expanding the applications of the technology. For example, previous research has shown that effluent (stabilized waste leaving the digester) can be used as fertilizer for crops and as a feed supplement in aquaculture. More recently, our focus has been on bioenergy. We have tested whether mixing different types of organic wastes improves or diminishes bioenergy production. We are also addressing theoretical aspects of biomass-to-energy conversion by investigating bioreactor system stability and bioenergy production through the integration of microbial genomics, ecology and metabolism perspectives.
Another topic is the microbial ecology of the guts of herbivorous insects. Insects, such as wood-boring species, are able to consume plant biomass because they have microbes in their guts that act as partners in the biomass breakdown. The microbes, genes and enzymes in the guts of these insects are performing a process similar to anaerobic digestion and could potentially be used for biotechnology.
We also work with freshwater microbiology, looking at the microbial diversity and ecology of a series of unique freshwater lakes located in the desert of central Mexico. Additionally, we are studying the plant/soil/microbe relationship that governs the success of mine-site reclamation in Appalachia. Surface mining destroys topsoil, and the re-vegetation of these sites is hindered by poor-quality landfill. We are seeking a better understanding of the microbes and plants that can revitalize these degraded soils.


Dr. David Huber (Bio)
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