Today at Berkeley Lab

Rep. George Miller Learns About Biosciences, 2nd Campus During Visit

(l-r) Ning Sun, Miller, and Lan Sun

On May 24, four months after the announcement of the Richmond Field Station as Berkeley Lab’s preferred site for the proposed consolidation of the biosciences programs, Congressman and Richmond native George Miller received an immersion in biosciences by Berkeley Lab leaders. Associate Lab Director Jay Keasling led an afternoon of presentations that covered JBEI, the Joint Genome Institute, the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit, and the Life Sciences Division activities at Potter Street in Berkeley.

Keasling made a strong case for Richmond Bay Campus as the 21st Century realization of Ernest Orlando Lawrence’s vision of uniting interdisciplinary science teams to tackle large-scale, complex energy and environmental challenges of relevance not only to the citizens of the Bay Area but to the sustainability of the planet. His remarks underscored the critical importance of sustained support from the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the DOE Office of Science for the biosciences at Berkeley Lab.

Keasling touched upon such topics as tailoring plant biomass and enzymes for next generation biofuels, and mobilizing scientific emergency response teams to triage environmental catastrophes and speed biological restoration, citing the Earth Sciences Division effort following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He also highlighted Berkeley Lab’s pioneering work in medical imaging and described recent advances reported by Life Sciences’ Bill Jagust in the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, he cited the foundational contributions of Mina Bissell and her colleagues in elucidating the role of the tissue microenvironment in the initiation, progression and possible reversion of breast cancer.

The group was then led through the JBEI labs by Vice Presidents Blake Simmons and Henrick Scheller, with stops at the Synthetic Biology Lab, with a briefing by Director Nathan Hillson, as well as a visit to the plant growth room, deconstruction chemistry, fuel synthesis, mass spectrometry, and robotics laboratories.

From JBEI’s fourth floor, they went downstairs one level to the ABPDU, where Operations Manager James Gardner and his colleagues provided Miller and his field representatives, Latressa Alford, Kathy Hoffman and Shanelle Scales, a whirlwind tour of the gleaming new 15,000 square-foot facility for testing and developing emergent biofuels technologies. The ABPDU was initially funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and is operated with support from the Office of Biomass Program within the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The group reconvened for an overview of the JGI by Deputy Director of Science Programs Jim Bristow, who described JGI’s global leadership in massive-scale sequencing and analysis of plants and microbe genomes. Bristow highlighted some of JGI’s projects that rely on the computational resources of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). These spanned characterizing the microbial communities in the stomachs of termites and cows and isolating genes for rapid growth, drought tolerance and disease resistance in trees and grasses–all in support of a community of over 1,100 users, including JBEI and the two other DOE Bioenergy Research Centers.

Miller and his staff then convoyed a mile across town to Berkeley Lab’s leased facility at Potter Street. There, Life Sciences Division Director Gary Karpen described how his team is helping to advance fundamental knowledge about how to improve human health and that of the biosphere by visualizing the four-dimensional dynamics (through time and space) of biological systems—from molecules to whole organisms.

Karpen introduced the group to Life Sciences Division Staff Scientist and Deputy for Technology Damir Sudar who co-leads Berkeley Lab’s Integrated Bioimaging Initiative. Sudar and other Life Sciences scientists demonstrated some of the colorful imaging on the fluorescence microscopy resources that enable, for example, quantitative analysis of protein distribution and dynamics in individual cells within the tissue context.

The three hours of activities culminated in the lab of Staff Scientist Trent Northen, where the Congressman had the opportunity to get his hands on the controls of a mass spectrometry imaging system established to address a diversity of applications ranging from understanding the dynamics of microbial communities to uncovering the metabolic drivers of cancers.

The afternoon provided Miller and his staff a comprehensive overview of the capabilities, resources and opportunities for further synergies that are contemplated when the biosciences groups would be integrated in the Richmond Bay Campus over the course of the next five years.

Miller, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1975, most recently as the 7th Congressional District’s representative, is seeking reelection California’s new 11th Congressional District, which encompasses Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Kensington, a small part of Martinez south of Highway 4, Concord, Clayton, Pittsburg, Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda, Danville, Blackhawk-Camino Tassajara, Alamo, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, and part of Antioch.