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Teacher Honored for Discoveries

from The Daily Beacon, January 13, 2006, by Terri Friedman

David White, a distinguished professor and Director of the Center for Biomarker Analysis at The University of Tennessee, was recognized at the Integrated Petroleum Environmental Symposium, presented in Houston on Nov.11.

White was acknowledged for his contributions to the fields of biomarker analysis and environmental science and engineering, as reported on the UT Science Alliance Web site.

White has uncovered signature patterns – biomarkers – inside the cell structures of microbes. The biomarkers distinguish what types of microbes are present and help interpret microbial activity.

Through this discovery, research applications study the functioning of microbes and make use of microbial processes.

“Microbes are the greatest resources for biological catalysis and chemical innovations on the planet, and we are just now getting the equipment to be able to examine them as communities.

“They run the Earth by powering all the geochemical cycles by which life is maintained. They have been here 3.8 billion years and can do very well without us – we are absolutely dependent on them.

“If it came to a vote between your cells and the bacteria that live with you, (you) would lose one to 10-a trillion cells to 10 trillion bacteria, “White said.

White explained some of the details of his recent research, studying microbes that can be utilized to reduce Uranium VI in groundwater.

“When certain bacteria grow, they deposit U VI to IV, and it becomes insoluble in groundwater and precipitates.

“So it is there, but does not move and contaminate your water and get into your, or other living things’, protoplasm,” White said.

White explained that the removed Uranium stays in sediment grains. “You can see it in 3D X-rays and sometimes in an electron microscope,” he said.

“It can remain coating the organism or just be lumps,” White said about microbes metabolizing Uranium. He added that one type of bacteria, Geobacter, has nanowires that send electrons to tiny lumps of iron and Uranium.

He said that microbes live in communities and have the ability to communicate with one another.

White said his interest in microbes developed “as a physician teaching medical students.”

“It slowly dawned on me that what you will die from is largely determined by what you eat and breathin, and microbes modulate we all get exposed to – we had better know and respect them,” he said.

Alison Buchan, assistant professor and a microbial ecologist, described some of White’s research and the microbiology department where he is a professor.

“This has numerous applications from a human health standpoint, including identification of microbial pathogens in environmental and clinical settings … (and) those diagnostic of ecosystem health,” Buchan said.

“The research interest of the departmental faculty are wideranging and include environmental microbiology, microbial ecology, microbial pathogenesis, virology, immunology and microbial physiology and genetics.

“The faculty are also very active in teaching undergraduate microbiology majors.” she said.

Susan Pfiffner, research assistant professor for UT’s microbiology department, relayed some experiences from White’s research team.

“He is a pioneer in lipid technology. He invented the in-situ alkylation-pyrolysis technique for fast qualitative method for analysis, which has been used in virtually all the chemical industry.

“He may have the best background in mass spectrometry among microbiologists. He was also a pioneer in suing tandem mass spectrometry, which is now widely used for biological applications.

“He has also been involved in discussion of planetary protection, as well as Department of Homeland security concerns,” she said.

White has also produced more than 550 publications, said Pfiffner.

“He is a widely respected scientist. People enjoy coming to his office to discuss scientific theories, experiments and processes over a broad range of scientific disciplines – biology, chemistry, geology, physics, medical science, earth and planetary science.

“His office visits could be categorized as a who’s who of people in biology and chemistry,” Pfiffner said. “He is a gracious scientist. He has great sense of humor and is fun to be with.

“In his spare time, he likes to do woodworking and has turned some nice-looking bowls. Also, there have been some great field trips to gather wood,” she said.