CORVALLIS - A new $2.6 million grant, just announced by the National Science Foundation, will help students unlock the mysteries of life beneath the surface of the Earth.

The five-year award will enable an international team of scientists to construct a graduate student training program that could lead to innovations in safer drinking water, handling of toxic wastes, improved soil and crops and in countless other fields, said Martin Fisk, an Oregon State University professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences and principal investigator for the project.

OSU and Portland State University are the project's sponsors. Participants in the effort come from research institutions throughout the world, including the U.S. Department of Energy, Norway's University of Bergen, the United Kingdom's University of Bristol and Sweden's University of Gothenburg.

Fifteen doctoral students a year will be trained by internationally recognized engineers, microbiologists, geologists, oceanographers, geochemists, soil scientists and hydrologists, said Anna-Louise Reysenbach, co-principal investigator and assistant professor of environmental biology at PSU. The idea is to prepare doctoral students for the next generation of research by bridging the gap between traditional disciplines, Reysenbach said. Student preparation will be broadened with a new subsurface biosphere integrated major with five related components.

Components include group training and courses that link microbial with physical and chemical processes and international internships and field programs.

"Science is in an increasing trend to be more interdisciplinary," she said. "We are excited about increasing our research capacity with some good integrated collaborative efforts between OSU and Portland State and other institutions."

The NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training grant will help fund research into an area that is right under our feet but has been virtually ignored for decades, Fisk said.

"We're trying to understand the entire subsurface biosphere in our project, 'Earth's Subsurface Biosphere: Coupling of Microbial, Geophysical and Geochemical Processes,'" he said. "It turns out there is a huge amount of biomass beneath the surface and 10 years ago, people weren't even looking for it."

Researchers have found that there are about a billion microbes per quarter teaspoon at the ocean floor, Fisk said, but even a mile below the seafloor there are still about one million bacteria in the same-sized sample.

Fisk said expanding the program outside the confines of OSU faculty and facilities was a natural progression.

The idea for a subsurface biosphere grant came from a discussion with Stephen Giovannoni, an OSU professor of microbiology, and Lewis Semprini, OSU professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. Both men are co-principal investigators for the project.

"We knew three faculty members at PSU and many more at OSU who had worked in these areas," Fisk said.

As part of their training, three students will enroll at Portland, while the remaining 12 will enroll at Oregon State, Fisk said. However, scientists and students at both institutions will keep in close contact and will collaborate throughout the program. Students will be encouraged to use video conferencing technology to enhance communication, Fisk said.

In addition to the NSF graduate training grant, the OSU graduate school has contributed matching funds for tuition waivers for students, Fisk said. The OSU Office of Research and the OSU Colleges of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Science, Engineering and Agriculture, as well as Portland State have also contributed funds to support the program.

In addition to Fisk, Reysenbach, Giovannoni and Semprini, Peter Bottomley, an OSU professor of microbiology is also a co-principal investigator on the project. Ten additional faculty members at OSU, three at PSU and three at European universities will also participate in the program.

The OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences has been ranked fifth in the U.S. by the National Research Council. The college presently has 67 faculty, 90 graduate students, and receives about $25 million in annual research funding. A number of undergraduate students pursue minors in the college. The university's Colleges of Agriculture, Engineering and Science are also nationally ranked.

Portland State is the lead graduate and undergraduate institution in the Portland area and has one of the nation's fastest rates of growth in securing competitive research grants and contracts. The university recently established the Center for Life in Extreme Environments, whose mission is to foster interdisciplinary research in extreme environments. All PSU co-principal investigators in the sub-surface project are members of the center.

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Martin Fisk, 541-737-5208