Engineering Microbial Communities

January 31, 2020

Microbes hold promise for remediating environmental contaminants, and professor Claudia Gunsch wants to fine-tune them to do the best job possible

from Emily Yang for the Duke Research Blog

Claudia Gunsch's group

Claudia Gunsch, the Theodore Kennedy distinguished associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, is addressing pollution with the power of microbial communities, which have the power to degrade environmental contaminants.

But to engineer microbial communities, she first needs to fully understand them.

“How can you engineer that microbial community so the organisms that degrade the pollutant become enriched?” she asked. “Or — if you’re thinking about dangerous pathogenic organisms — how do you engineer the microbial community so that those organisms become depressed in that particular environment?”

The first step, Gunsch said, is to figure out who’s there. What microbes make up a community? How do these organisms function? Who is doing what? Which organisms are interchangeable? Which prefer to live with one another, and which prefer not living with one another?

“Once we can really start building that kind of framework,” she says, “we can start engineering it for our particular purposes.”

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