Biddle's research of microbes could tell us about life
on other planets. Photo by Elizabeth Boyle
About a third of the world’s mircroorganisms live tucked away far beneath the ocean’s surface, covered with sediments deep under the seafloor. Though their remote, hard-to-reach location has kept much about them a mystery, Jennifer Biddle is working to learn more about these tiny organisms.
The new information could be very valuable, said Biddle, who joined the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE) in January as assistant professor of marine biosciences. Learning how these microscopic bacteria and plants survive in harsh conditions and with very limited energy sources could tell us a lot about life on Earth — and possibly other planets.
“If you think of Mars, you’re looking at an environment that is like our deep biosphere in that these organisms haven’t been in a normal energy environment in millions of years,” she said. “We want to know if there are other ways the organisms use energy, or are there different energy sources we haven’t thought of.”
Biddle, who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship funded by NASA’s Astrobiology Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies DNA to learn more about microorganisms, also known as microbes. Understanding DNA gives scientists a kind of blueprint that tells them what kinds of processes the organisms are capable of.
She currently is studying the DNA of microorganisms collected from waters around the South Pacific, South America, and Africa. In collaboration with the Joint Genome Institute, Biddle hopes the research will provide insight about the relationships between the microorganisms, the sediments in those locations, and the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
In December she participated in a research cruise and an Alvin dive to collect sediments from Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. Biddle plans to examine the microorganisms collected from that trip as well as ones extracted from a deep-sea valley near the mid-Atlantic ridge to understand their relationship to local environmental conditions.
Another project she plans to work on at UD involves the unique microbialites found in Pavilion Lake. Located in British Columbia, Canada, the lake is home to microbialites — deposits of ancient microbes — that are unlike any others because of the represent a vast variety of shapes and sizes.
“I hope to give our research group the molecular detail of the different structures and to see if the organisms are similar or different at different depths,” she said.
Prior to her UNC position, Biddle held a postdoctoral fellowship in Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Geosciences. She earned her doctoral degree in biochemistry from Penn State in 2006 after graduating with honors from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in biotechnology.
When asked what attracted her to UD, she pointed to her respect for researchers here even before the position opened.
“I liked them and I admired their work,” she said. “That made it really easy to apply and interview, because I knew I could be in a group of people that I was excited to be around.”
Biddle, who hails from East Brunswick, N.J. and counts cooking and racing sailboats among her favorite pastimes, said the best part of her work is that each day presents a new challenge or activity.
“I love that I never know what to expect,” she said.
For more about CEOE visit www.ceoe.udel.edu.