Caltech professor Dianne Newman

Mixed Microbes

Dianne Newman views Southern California as a melting pot of diversity. But for her, some of the most interesting inhabitants are best viewed under a microscope.

Newman, the Gordon M. Binder/Amgen Professor of Biology and Geobiology, was the inaugural director of Caltech’s Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions (CEMI) from 2012 until 2020 and the first holder of CEMI’s Allen V.C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair from 2017 to 2020. CEMI brings together researchers from four Caltech divisions who include microbes—tiny single-celled organisms, such as bacteria—in their work.

“Diversity among microbes offers an enormous playground in which to understand natural processes and apply that understanding to good ends,” Newman says. “At CEMI, we find links that aren’t obvious but are potentially meaningful.”

One of the collaborations CEMI has catalyzed, for example, resulted in a new way to visualize the microbial communities that cause infection in patients with cystic fibrosis. Understanding how these communities are organized may lead to better ways to treat and clear lung infections.

CEMI was launched in 2012 thanks to a grant from the Weston Havens Foundation and flexible funds provided by Caltech. These resources enabled Newman and Provost Edward M. Stolper, the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology, to act quickly when they observed that several faculty members across campus were incorporating microbes into their research. The two recognized that opportunities for these scientists and engineers to exchange ideas and collaborate would lead to exciting discoveries.

“Diversity among microbes offers an enormous playground in which to understand natural processes and apply that understanding to good ends.”
- Dianne Newman

The plan has been a success. CEMI is bringing people together to conduct groundbreaking research—and the world is taking notice. As one indicator, two CEMI members, Newman and Victoria Orphan, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology, received prestigious MacArthur Fellowships in 2016.

Newman was recognized for her exploration of how the chemical reactions catalyzed by microbes have shaped the environment—and how the environment has influenced the evolution of microbes. Orphan studies microbial communities in extreme environments and their impact on nutrient availability and cycling in the oceans.

Newman and Orphan joined company with two other CEMI MacArthur honorees, Michael Elowitz, professor of biology and bioengineering and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and Sarkis Mazmanian, Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator.

“The MacArthur Prize recognizes and enables people whose work is creative,” Newman says. “In that way, it captures what the spirit of CEMI is all about.”

The microbial world still holds many mysteries. One of Newman’s next goals is to establish an advanced facility that would allow researchers at CEMI and throughout Caltech to grow microbes that have never been cultured before.

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