SLAM Talk Title: "Finding Microbes' Favorite Food"
How did you originally get interested in science?
Growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandparents during the summers. My grandfather taught me a lot about math puzzles and cooking. I got really fascinated by numbers and all the magic reactions that turn normal ingredients into incredible food.
What is your favorite place at the Lab?
The cafeteria where you get the best view of the bay.
Most memorable moment at the Lab?
Volunteering for the Berkeley Lab Director's Apprenticeship Program (BLDAP) of the K-12 program! I recently taught a plant biology research project with a few labmates using the fabricated ecosystem devices (EcoFABs) developed at our lab as part of the BLDAP for local high school students. You can see clips of us working together in the classroom. It feels very rewarding to hear the students telling me that doing this hands-on research project is an "Eco-Fabulous" experience and they feel more interested in biology and in considering pursuing STEM careers in the future.
What are your hobbies or interests outside the Lab?
I like cooking a lot; it feels like doing experiments at home but there is no need to follow the plans strictly. I’ve also been learning Spanish since the pandemic when travel was restricted and just started to do more traveling recently.
Ying's Script - "Finding Microbes' Favorite Food"
We all have our favorite foods and we choose what to eat depending on our situation. For example, what you eat at home alone is probably different from what you prefer at a buffet with friends. This is also true for MICROBES. Microbes can eat a wide variety of C molecules and have preferences.
Historically, research about microbial food preferences has focused on very narrow and isolated cases; For example, examining a single microbe in a culture tube with one or two simple foods.
However, recent research has shown that there is a buffet of diverse C molecules in the soil. So, how would a microbe alter its diet when having access to that variety of foods? Just imagine if you were at a buffet, would you still choose to only eat that pizza?
And what would happen in a soil community where there are many microbes with similar food preferences. Would they compete or share food with each other?
Studying these more complex scenarios is challenging, but has the potential to help us increase the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the air into the soil, so to help tackle the climate crisis. And this is where my research aims to contribute.
I study food preferences of soil microbes using mass spectrometry, which can identify and quantify a great diversity of C molecules in complex samples, so I can track which molecules the microbes like to eat and to produce at the c buffet in soil.
Soil stores more C than the atmosphere and all plants combined. When plants take up carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, they release a big portion of that C into the soil, containing diverse C molecules. And there, lots of microbes look at this feast and decide what they’d like to eat.
Some microbes may prefer the C molecules that are easier to digest and this C will be more respired back to the atmosphere. Some other microbes however, may prefer other molecules that are better at helping them to build bodies, so this C will be more converted to microbial biomass or other products that can potentially stay in the soil longer.
My goal is to identify which microbes like to eat which C molecules available in this soil buffet, and how the different microbes can eat as a team to efficiently store more C in the soil with lower Carbon dioxide emission, and, THEREFORE, to help mitigate climate change.