BOZEMAN Montana State University microbiologist Matthew Fields spends his days studying a microscopic world that most people take for granted.
Fields studies the physiology and behavior of microbes the tiny organisms that have inhabited virtually every square inch of the earth's surface for the past four billion years.
"Microbes have global impact," Fields said. "They grow fast and in large numbers, and there is always power in numbers."
Fields is particularly interested in how that power can be harnessed for human use. Last year, he received a five-year $1.65 million grant from the Department of Energy to study how microbes living together interact. Understanding those interactions could affect how we think of energy production, climate change and even soil contamination.
The grant is part of the Virtual Institute for Microbial Stress and Survival, and Fields' work involves researchers at MSU and five other universities across the country, as well as scientists at three national laboratories.
Fields, who works with MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering, said people are generally only aware of the microbes that make humans sick, such as E. coli. But those notorious species represent only a drop in earth's microbial ocean.
"Life on this planet is microbes," he said. "There is a vast amount going on in the microbial world that we don't understand. Microbes play significant roles in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, and we don't understand how."
Part of the reason microbes remain mysterious is the way they have traditionally been studied in the lab, Fields said. Researchers usually grow cultures of single microbe species and then explore how those monocultures react to different stimuli.
"But monocultures in the lab are not like the real world," Fields said. "Seldom do organisms grow on their own in a real ecosystem."
Instead, Fields looks at the complex s
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Montana State University