College of Sciences faculty, staff, and students are invited to join Provost Rafael L. Bras and Search Committee Chair Pinar Keskinocak, for a town hall to learn about the dean search process and timeline, and to provide feedback on the characteristics of the ideal candidate.

The international search for the new dean for the College of Sciences will be chaired by Pinar Keskinocak, William W. George Chair, H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering; College of Engineering ADVANCE Professor; and Director, Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems. The individual selected by this search committee will also hold the Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair.

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Every Friday at 11 AM, the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences hosts an informal weather discussion regarding current and forecasted weather related to the greater Atlanta area as well as North America. Discussions will be led by EAS students and faculty as well as other guest meteorologists, including Georgia Tech alumni and other guest visitors to EAS. If you are interested in meteorology or want to simply learn more about weather events that are making the news, stop on by and join us!  Bring your lunch and a few friends!

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EAS Fall 2018 Seminar Series Presents Dr. Andrew Winters, State University of New York, Albany

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EAS Fall 2018 Seminar Series Presents Dr. Ashaki Rouff, Rutgers University

Mining Phosphate from Wastewater: Environmental Implications and Opportunity for Reuse

Sustainable use of resources is essential for environmental preservation while supporting an expanding human footprint. Anthropogenically-derived wastes are a sink for used, but valuable materials that can be recycled and reused. Therefore, wastewater “mining” can supplement human resource needs, while reducing reliance on natural and geologic reserves.

In this study, plant and animal wastewaters are evaluated as a source of phosphate mineral resources through struvite (MgNH4PO4×6H2O) precipitation. The recovery process lowers the phosphorus content of the effluent, mitigating nutrient discharge to, and pollution of surface waters. 

The environmental properties of the recovered mineral are assessed, including impurity content (trace metals and organics), and potential for release of components to soil and atmosphere (ammonia gas, water vapor) using standard and advanced geoanalytical techniques. The mineralized phosphate can be repurposed, most commonly as a fertilizer product. Alternate uses are also explored.

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September 12, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Mention “peat moss,” and many people will conjure up the curly brown plant material that gardeners use. “Oh, the thing you get at Home Depot” – is a common reaction Joel Kostka receives when he mentions that he studies peat moss. His response: “Peat moss is a really cool plant that’s important to the global carbon cycle.”

Joel Kostka is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. The National Science Foundation has just awarded him and three co-principal investigators a $1.15 million, three-year grant to study the microbes in peat moss. The goal is to understand the microbiome’s role in nutrient uptake and the methane dynamics of wetlands and the impact of climate change on these activities.

Kostka’s collaborators are Jennifer Glass, an assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Xavier Mayali, a research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and David Weston, a staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“It has been shown that microbes that live with peat moss help them to grow better by aiding their uptake of carbon and major nutrients such as nitrogen,” Kostka says. “This project will explore which microbes help to keep peat moss plants healthy, how plants and microbes interact, and how these relationships will be affected by climate change?”

Peat moss, also called Sphagnum, carpets the surface of peatlands. This type of wetland locks up huge amounts of carbon in the form of thick, peat soil deposits. When peat is broken down by microbes, greenhouse gases – methane and carbon dioxide – are produced. Methane is of particular interest, because when released to the atmosphere, it has a warming potential that is 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

Scientists hypothesize that environmental warming could cause peatlands to release a lot more methane, which in turn would accelerate climate change.    

“Our project is fundamental science. We’re trying to figure out how the microbes help the plants grow better.”

Lots of evidence suggest that peatlands will produce more methane as the environment warms up. “Methanogens [methane-producing bacteria] don’t like the cold,” Kostka says. “The warmer it gets, the better they are in producing methane.”

Methane in peatlands bubbles up to the peat moss layer. Methane-consuming microbes in peat moss eat some of the gas released. In effect, microbes in peat moss comprise a biofilter that reduces the amount of methane reaching the atmosphere.

However, “we hypothesize that the methane-eating microbes in peat moss may crash as the climate gets warmer,” Kostka says.  That sets up a double-whammy scenario: As the climate gets warmer, microbes in peatlands produce more methane, while other microbes in peat moss become less able to consume the greenhouse gas. “We could get an explosion of methane much more than we can predict,” Kostka says.   

Information about plant microbiomes is scant. Most plants whose microbiomes are being studied are crops, like corn and soybeans. “Few studies are available on plants that are environmentally important but not so economically important,” Kostka says. “A lot of our work is to build better models for how these wetlands respond to climate change.”

“Few studies are available on plants that are environmentally important but not so economically important. A lot of our work is to build better models for how these wetlands respond to climate change.”

Georgia Tech’s Glass will study the geochemical aspects of the peat moss microbiome. She will measure how fast peat moss microbes fix nitrogen and consume methane. She will also identify the trace nutrients available to peat moss in the wetland.

“Because these peatlands receive most of their nutrient input from precipitation, they contain extremely low concentrations of some bioessential trace metals,” Glass says. “We're interested in testing how trace nutrient availability impacts the growth of methane-cycling microbes exposed to warming temperatures.”

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Mayali will use NanoSims, an imaging mass spectrometer, to identify what microbes are eating the methane or fixing nitrogen. He will incubate microbe samples with substrates – methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen – enriched in rare isotopes such as carbon-13 instead of the normally abundant carbon-12. Analysis by NanoSims creates isotope maps that enables detailed tracing of who did what.

“Our instrument is able to not only track who is eating the methane or fixing nitrogen from the air, but more importantly, how much and where it ultimately ends up, for example into the Sphagnum plant versus being kept by the microbes,” Mayali says.

Meanwhile, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Weston will use genetically characterized peat moss and microbial members to construct synthetic communities to test how host moss genes influence microbiome assembly and functioning. “Peat moss microbiomes are extremely complex with thousands of members with diverse metabolic capabilities,” Weston says.

“To help determine the role of specific community member interactions,” Weston adds, “we will decompose the field system into simplified synthetic communities where community changes and nutrients can be accurately measured and subjected to precise environmental manipulations.”

“We can engineer wetlands to encourage the growth of peat moss, but that’s not our goal,” Kostka says. “Our project is fundamental science. We’re trying to figure out how the microbes help the plants grow better.”

Transformers: Space, from Washington Post Live

Space, once famously dubbed “the final frontier,” now seems more accessible than ever. With new developments in propulsion, design, mission planning, research and technology, the future of spaceflight appears to be full of opportunity and America is poised to play a leading role.

On Friday, September 14, The Washington Post will bring together key government officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein. They will be joined by renowned scientists and leaders in the field of space exploration for a program examining the many factors shaping American leadership in space, the new “space race,” the future of space tourism and exploration that could lead to a future beyond Earth.

Among the invited scientists is Britney Schmidt, astrobiologist and assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Guest list is here.

Transformers: Space is produced in partnership with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the Association of Space Explorers (ASE).

Sign up here to receive livestream notification. The program will be streamed live at wapo.st/transformersspace.

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The British Consulate-General in Atlanta kicks off the 2018 European Climate Diplomacy Week by hosting a forum on winning together by working together to fight climate change.

Kim Cobb, professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Emma Howard-Boyd, chair of the U.K. Environment Agency will offer their thoughts on how business, government, and academia can work together to fight climate change and harness economic value. 

After introductions by the U.K. and French consul generals, Cobb and Howard-Boyd will each give a short keynote address, leaving plenty of time for audience Q&A. 

Light refreshments will be served.

Eventbrite registration is requested.

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The NASA Astrobiology Institute marks its 20th anniversary this year and Georgia Tech is throwing a party! This celebration will feature talks and a poster session by faculty members, NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellows, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers in Georgia Tech's vibrant astrobiology community.

The celebration is hosted by Frank Rosenzweig, professor of biological sciences and principal investigator of the NAI program Reliving the Past. 

The event is sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Georgia Tech College of Sciences, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences, and the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. 

The event is by by invitation only.

Speakers, Morning Session starting at 8:30 AM

Thom Orlando, professor of chemistry and biochemistry
"An Overview of REVEALS and CSTAR Programs"

Amanda Stockton, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry
"High Impact Chemistry: The Icy Moons Penetrator Organic Analyzer"

Loren Williams, professor of chemistry and biochemistry
"Visualizing the Origins of Life in Biopolymers"

Nick Hud, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and principal investigator of the Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE)
"Some Highlights of CCE Discoveries on the Possible Origins and Early Evolution of Biopolymers"

Martha Grover, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering
"Prebiotic Replication of an RNA Duplex Containing an Active Ribozyme"

Chris Reinhard, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Climate and Atmospheric Biosignatures on Reducing Worlds"

Jeff Bowman for Britney Schmidt, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Oceans Across Space and Time: A Multi-Institutional Effort to Understand and Identify Life in Extraterrestrial Oceans"

Jennifer Glass, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Laughing Gas as a Precursor to Aerobic LIfe"

Will Ratcliff, assistant professor of biological sciences
"Solving Physical Challenges during the Origin of Multicellularity by Evolving Simple Development

James Wray, associate professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences
"Orbital Spectral Signatures of Changing Habitable Environments on Mars" 

Lunch and Poster Session, 12:30-1:45 PM
 
Speakers, Afternoon Session, starting at 2 PM

Pedram Samani, postdoctoral researcher, Georgia Tech
"Experimental Evolution of Anisogamy: An Inquiry into the Origins of Sexes"

Peter Conlin, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"Experimental Evolution of Adaptive Phenotypic Plasticity in a Temporally Varying Environment"

Caroline Turner, NPP Fellow, University of Pittsburgh
"Environmental Similariy (Mostly) Predicts Genetic Similarity"

Nadia Szeinbaum, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"A Microbial Ecology Perspective on the Success of Oxygenic Photosynthesis"

Moran Frankel-Pinter, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"Dynamic Polymerization of Prebiotic Depsipeptides Allows Selection of Stable Structures"

Micah Schaible, NPP Fellow, Georgia Tech
"Ionizing Radiation Effects on the Surfaces of Airless Bodies"

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September 5, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Editor’s Note: This story was written by Emily Woodward, public relations coordinator for Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. It was originally published in the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Newsletter Volume 4, issue 5.

Four coolers, two shovels, countless sampling vials and five people pile into a vehicle headed to a secluded salt marsh on Sapelo Island, Georgia. It’s a surprising amount of equipment needed to study the microscopic community of organisms responsible for the health of Georgia’s most abundant coastal habitat, the salt marsh.   

“Plant microbiome research, I always say, is about 10 years behind human microbiome research,” says Joel Kostka, jointly appointed professor of biology and earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Roughly half of the cells in the human body are microbial. These microbes, mostly bacteria, all have different functions; some make us ill, but most keep us healthy by helping with digestion or preventing infection. Together, these microorganisms make up the human microbiome.

The same is true in the plant world, though little is known about plant microbiomes, particularly those associated with salt-tolerant coastal plants like Spartina alterniflora, which dominate Georgia’s salt marshes.  

With funding from Georgia Sea Grant, Kostka is studying the microbes intimately associated with Spartina to better understand how the plant microbiome supports the health of Georgia’s salt marshes.

“In a way, this is discovery-based science because no one has studied the microbes that are intimately associated with these plants,” says Kostka. “When you look at the marsh from a large scale it really looks constant and consistent, but when you get down at the micro level you see all kinds of differences. There's a lot of complexity there.”

The research team wants to know how the microbial community changes as you move from the interior of the marsh, where the growth of Spartina is stunted and the plants are short, to the taller, lush marsh growing near the tidal creeks.

At the site, they measure salinity, oxygen, and pH as well as the height and density of Spartina at different spots along a transect. A hole punch is used to collect samples of Spartina blades, which will be measured for nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen. Soil samples and root material are taken back to the lab where the latest gene sequencing and metagenomics methods will be used to identify individual microbes and understand the microbial processes that improve the health of the plant. 

“We have a number of parameters that we can measure to determine whether the plants are healthy, and then we go in and look at the microbes in more healthy plants versus less healthy plants, and see how those microbes are changing,” says Kostka.

It’s a lot of data to collect and the work isn’t easy, especially when trudging through knee-high marsh mud in 90-degree temperatures.

Luckily, Kostka has an extra set of hands to help with the sampling.

Elisabeth Pinion, an AP environmental science teacher from Cumming, Georgia, is working alongside Kostka and his team. Pinion is one of 16 educators participating in Schoolyard Program of the NSF-supported Georgia Coastal Ecosystems (GCE) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project, which is hosted every summer at the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island. As part of the program, teachers spend a week on the coast, shadowing different researchers in the field and learning about sampling methods and processes that can be taken back to the classroom.

Pinion recognized similarities between the topics she covers in class and the research methods used for this project.

“Studying parameters that determine the productivity of different ecosystems is something that we generally spend a lot of time on,” says Pinion. “What they are looking at is very applicable to the classroom.”

Throughout the week, Kostka will have the opportunity to engage multiple educators in the field, showing him or her how they collect samples for microbiology and discussing the important ecosystem services that salt marshes provide.

"The Schoolyard Program is a great way to give the teachers a behind-the-scenes look at how science is conducted, including sometimes having to rethink your strategy once you get out in the field," said Merryl Alber, professor of marine sciences at UGA and lead PI of the GCE LTER project. "It’s also beneficial for researchers, who have a chance to interact with the teachers and think creatively about how to bring the science back into the classroom.”

Kostka recognizes the importance of making his research accessible to educators and students, which is why he used a portion of his Georgia Sea Grant funding to support three of the educators participating in the Schoolyard Program.

The trip to Sapelo is the first of many trips the research team will make to the coast. They plan to sample sites at two other barrier islands; Tybee Island and St. Simons Island, in the coming months.

Kostka hopes results from the project can be used to develop innovative methods for improving salt marsh restoration practices in Georgia. One example would be to create plant probiotics that could be applied to Spartina seedlings when planting new marshes.

“We could grow beneficial microbes in the lab and add them to the naked roots during planting, which would help the plant to take hold in the intertidal zone,” says Kostka.

“With sea level rise and increased coastal development, restoration activities will be more important to maintaining the productivity of Georgia’s marshes,” says Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.  

“Funding research like this, that helps us improve attempts to establish native vegetation, will inform future restoration projects and hopefully make them more economically and environmentally efficient.”

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