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Flask Crowd

Will Harcombe’s fascination with evolution and ecosystem function adds a dynamic dimension to the quest to better understand — and tap the power of — the microorganisms in our lives.

“Community” means different things to different people. To an urban planner, it’s a neighborhood bustling with people. To a landscape ecologist, it’s the collection of plants and animals that paint a riotous portrait of life on the raw canvas of a barren landscape.

To Will Harcombe, it’s a whole bunch of microbes duking it out — and occasionally teaming up — in an Erlenmeyer flask, or an intestinal tract, or a wastewater treatment plant as they work (evolutionarily speaking) to boost their survival in the moving-target milieu of other microbes working to do the same.

Harcombe, who joined the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the BioTechnology Institute through the Microbial Systems research cluster in December, studies the evolution of cooperation and competition in bacteria and other microorganisms from a molecular perspective. His goal: to understand and be able to quantitatively predict how microbial communities change over time due to the interplay of their constituents’ physiological activities.

“Microbes contain the world’s greatest reserves of metabolic and catabolic processes,” he says. “I get so excited about questions I can ask in these kinds of systems.”

Harcombe first became enamored of biology as a five-year-old, roaming the woods near his East Texas home and playing with his family’s pet boa constrictor. That led him to study reptiles and amphibians as an undergrad, which quickly sparked a fascination with evolutionary ecology. But herps’ (relatively) long generation time stymied his studies, so he shifted his focus to microbes instead. His timing couldn’t have been better. Bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms are hot stuff these days; not only are they increasingly recognized as real movers and shakers of the living world, with a finger in the pie of everything from soil formation to immune system health, their innate talents for making molecules is drawing entrepreneurial attention to their potential to function as miniature factories for pharmaceuticals, fuels, and more.

Harcombe quickly hit his stride in the world of microbial evolutionary ecology. As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, he became the first person to experimentally evolve costly cooperation between two species of bacteria. Later, as a postdoc working with systems biologist Christopher Marx at Harvard, he helped develop a computer model known as COMETS (for Computation of Microbial Ecosystems in Time and Space) that can take information about enzymes available in a particular mix of bacteria and use it to predict how the different microbes will grow, interact with each other, and change the environment around them.

“This tool has potential to address both questions of fundamental interest in biology as well as applied problems, from human health to bioremediation and biofuel production,” Harcombe says. “I get really jazzed about integrating fundamental and applied research.”

As do his new colleagues at the University of Minnesota. With growing programs related to molecular evolution and synthetic biology, Harcombe’s unique skill set is in big demand.

“His research spans areas from the environment and global nutrient cycling to human health,” says BioTechnology Institute director Michael Sadowsky, “allowing him to interact and collaborate with a wide range of BTI faculty, postdocs, and students.”

In addition to working with BTI colleagues on practical applications of understanding how microbial communities change over time, Harcombe is enthusiastic about expanding the questions he can ask — and answers he can discover — at the intersection of microbiology, ecology, evolution, molecular biology, and systems biology by bringing viruses and fungi into his experimental mix. And he can’t think of a better place to do it. Of all the places he considered for this first faculty appointment, “some had great programs in one area or another,” he says. “Here, I think it hits on all of them.”

— Mary Hoff