Zara Summers: Microbe-tough - Energy Factor
Behind the energy

Zara Summers: Microbe-tough

July 11, 2017

When you think about it, humans are a little mundane. Yes, we’re agile and curious, and our ability for true independent thought is unparalleled, but from a metabolism and survival perspective, the microbial world is where it’s at. Let me explain.

Microbes are living organisms that can’t be seen by the naked eye. They thrive in some of the most challenging environments. As humans, we easily get too cold or too hot. We can’t breathe anything but oxygen. Take us out of our comfort zone and we’re unable to operate. But a microbe will live in pure acid, and some will easily survive at temperatures of 100 degrees Celsius or higher. Others exist at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point. And the heartiest bunch lives miles into the earth’s crust. Others breathe iron—I could go and on.

By now you’ve probably figured out that I am an unabashed microbial diehard. I could geek out on microbes all day long. I often do.

Actually, so could my father. He’s also a microbiologist. He started out as a science teacher at a small school in New Hampshire, where I was born, but then returned to school to get his PhD in microbiology.

He did his postdoc in Bozeman, Montana, and as a child I would go with him on field trips to Yellowstone National Park to pick up samples for his lab. Yellowstone ignited my lifelong passion for microbes. Take, for example, the park’s famous hot springs and the rainbow-colored hot sprays gushing out of them. Some are green; others are red, yellow or orange. Each color is actually partly generated by a microbe that lives in that specific environment—a fact that continues to amaze me.

Today I still go on some epic field trips. Last year my team and I went to Wyoming to collect more microbial samples. But one of my all-time favorite places to collect samples has got be from offshore platforms. It’s the closest thing I’ll ever be to Indiana Jones. I mean, just getting to a platform by helicopter or boat is a thrilling experience.

What really drives me, though, is the variety of microbial strains I get to work on. Our samples are collected all over the world. Basically, wherever ExxonMobil operates pipelines or production rigs we will collect microbial organisms as needed. That makes for a huge variety of samples that I probably wouldn’t get to work on in a traditional academic setting.

Yellowstone National Park’s iconic hot springs (above) are microbe-rich environments. As a child, Summers regularly traveled there with her microbiologist dad to collect samples for his lab.

Research conducted by ExxonMobil’s microbiologists supports activities across the company. Some microbes, for example, help us better understand an oil deposit. Microbes like to eat up oil, so we’re using them on remediation projects. We’re also looking at ways to mitigate the impact of microbial corrosion on our pipelines. Some longer-term projects we’re working on include investigating microbial strains that could be used for biofuels or bioproducts.

For someone who is as passionate about microbes as I am, it doesn’t get better than that. I never stop learning. I also get to apply my research and knowledge to help solve one of our world’s biggest challenges: supplying the world with safe and reliable energy.

Tags: Yellowstone, microbiology, microbes, Behind the energy
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