Microbes are ubiquitous microscopic organisms that are known to have both beneficial and detrimental effects on food, water, the environment, and public health. In the same way that microbes inhabit many different biological and environmental systems, microbial systems research touches a multitude of academic disciplines.

“Interdisciplinary studies of microbial systems range from the global sustainability of food, water, and energy to public health and safety, including emerging diseases like coronavirus. Research conducted by the microbial systems research teams at Virginia Tech are vital to finding solutions to these ‘wicked’ societal challenges,” said Ann Stevens, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

On March 6, faculty and students discussed these societal challenges through participation in the second annual Microbial Systems mini-symposium at Virginia Tech. Events like these are critical to communications and conversations that ultimately solve societal problems.

The mini-symposium, hosted annually, is organized by the Microbial Systems group, a synergistic network of interdisciplinary microbiology researchers that are determined to solve multi-dimensional microbial systems challenges.

"It's remarkable just how much microbiology research is going on at Virginia Tech, but we're spread across many departments and colleges. The Microbial Systems mini-symposium was a great way to bring us all together, share what we are doing, learn from each other, and hopefully spark new collaborations,” said Amy Pruden, the W. Thomas Rice professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering.

The group is led by professors Amy Pruden, Ann Stevens, Boris Vinatzer, and Mark Williams. In addition to its leading members, the group is comprised of 43 faculty that represent seven colleges, two schools, and 14 departments across the Virginia Tech campus.

The keynote speaker for the event was Kostas T. Konstantinidis, the Maulding Faculty Fellow in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. Over the course of the evening, Konstantinidis revealed astounding bioinformatic tools that he has used to identify crude oil-eating bacteria and pinpoint the source of food-borne disease outbreaks.

“Dr. Konstantinidis impressed the audience with the plethora of computational tools he and his group at Georgia Tech have developed. These tools can be applied to solve basic and applied science problems with great impact on society and the environment,” said Boris Vinatzer, a professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“The interdisciplinary approaches Dr. Konstantinidis and his collaborators use to solve problems in microbial systems are striking examples of why it is also important for Virginia Tech faculty in the microbial systems network to collaborate across departments and colleges,” said Vinatzer, who hosted Konstantinidis’s keynote

In addition to having a keynote talk, the schedule also included four-minute “flash talks” and poster presentations by microbial systems faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students.

Supported by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Microbial Systems group hopes to build academic collaborations, catalyze new ideas, increase visibility on campus, strategize and develop large interdisciplinary grant proposals, facilitate collaboration with industry, and improve graduate training in the field of microbial systems.

The Microbial Systems group has seen its share of success. Just recently, Ann Stevens received a R03 grant from the National Institutes of Health to further her research of pathogenic Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which causes seafood-associated gastroenteritis via raw oysters. The preliminary data was funded by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the MicroFEWHS Seed Funding Program, which aims to help mid-career faculty members.

“We live in a microbial dominated world. They vastly outnumber us - humans – and undoubtedly outweigh us. To understand microbial systems and their seemingly infinite genetic potential will be a key aspect for the health of the planet and humankind," said Mark Williams, an associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“The role of the infinitely small is infinitely great,” added Williams, in a paraphrase from the great 19th century French biologist Louis Pasteur.

- Written by Kendall Daniels