"two percent"

Dr. Sara Gushgari-Doyle

Second Place Award Recipient

Have you ever wondered what happens to the water you use once it circles the drain? Microorganisms remove pollutants and pathogens from water during wastewater treatment. Without them, we would be drowning in poop and all the disease that comes with it.

Microorganisms actually help us do a lot of things. They help us make cheese and yogurt and wine. They make food crops grow stronger. They produce materials we use in many different industries, and they’re the reason we even have antibiotics and certain vaccines.

Studying microbial life in the laboratory has given us many groundbreaking discoveries, but scientists estimate that we are only able to grow 2% of microbes on Earth in the lab.

Only 2%.

That 2% has given us antibiotics. That 2% has given us the vaccine for malaria. We’re grateful for the 2%, don’t get me wrong. But we live in a time where antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem than ever before. Today, scientists are racing to develop a vaccine to respond to a global pandemic. Water security threatens even the most developed countries, and we need more than just 2%.

So I’m going after the other 98%.

Let me tell you how. The past few decades of research have caused an EXPLOSION in the amount of microbial data that tells us what microorganisms are able to do, starting with the thousands of genes encoded in a single organism’s DNA, and the way through to the chemicals they actually consume and produce as a community. I’m talking Big. Data. What we don’t yet have is an efficient way to use that big data.

I’m using computer programming and machine learning to mine the big data from real-world microbial communities living outside the lab in their own environments. Because of the power of computing, I’m able to make connections among these millions of datapoints that we as researchers would miss by reviewing the data ourselves. Using this method, we can determine the exact conditions these microbes need to thrive, mimic those conditions back in the lab, and increase that 2%.

Imagine what the other 98% could give us: New antibiotics that will keep us ahead of resistance. Organisms that can mineralize salt out of seawater for on-demand desalination anytime, anyplace. Microbes that can remove dangerous pathogens from indoor air. The unknown 98% will shape the world around us in ways we haven’t yet begun to imagine.