Scientist and professor
Born c. 1954; married Marie; children: Erika, Zak, Cole. Education: University of Connecticut, B.A. (biological sciences); Clark University, M.A. (biological sciences); Michigan State University, Ph.D. (microbiology), 1982.
Addresses: Office —Department of Microbiology, 203 Morrill Science Center IVN, University of Massachusetts, 639 North Pleasant St., Amherst, MA 01003. E-mail —dlovleymicrobio.umass.edu.
U.S. Geological Survey, water quality, then groundwater studies, 1984-95; discovered class of bacteria named Geobacter, 1987; hired as professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1995; named microbiology department head at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1997; named a distinguished professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2000; discovered (with others) Rhodoferax ferrireducens, 2003; received numerous grants from both private and public sources over the course his career. Also worked as a lifeguard.
Awards: Grand Prize Winner, Popular Science 's "best of What's New in Environmental Technology," 1992; Proctor & Gamble Award, American Society for Microbiology, 2004.
University of Massachusetts scientist Derek Lovley helped create a new field of study around a microorganism he discovered, Geobacter. Since the
Raised in northwest Connecticut, Lovley was interested in water-based environments and the outdoors from an early age. While young, he worked as a lifeguard during summers out of school. By the 1970s, Lovley was a student at the University of Connecticut where he studied biological sciences. Within that field, he focused on environmental sciences and hoped to find employment that kept him in the outdoors.
While an undergraduate student, Lovley had an epiphany that drew him to microbiology. He believed that microbiology could be more than just medical-related and disease-related research as many scientists believed. Lovley realized that microbiology included microscopic life that also helped the ecosystem and the planet. He became interested in the microorganisms that lived in water, especially microbes which processed material in the water. Lovley studied these areas in graduate school. He earned an M.A. in biological sciences in from Clark University, then a Ph.D. in microbiology from Michigan State University in 1982.
In 1984, Lovley joined the U.S. Geological Survey, where he focused on water resources. He first worked on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, but later moved into groundwater studies. By 1987, Lovley believed that certain microbes existed which could eat metals or breathe metals since the Earth has elements such as iron on which such microbes could live. However, not many of Lovley's colleagues agreed with him.
Lovley soon proved his fellow scientists were wrong. While looking through sediments in the Potomac River in 1987, Lovley made his discovery. He found a previously unknown type of bacteria that survived by living off metals, which he called Geobacter metallireducens. He dubbed their class Geobacter. Geobacter metallireducens converted insoluble ferric oxide in non-oxygen environments into soluble iron. The iron was then able to travel in the environment, become re-oxidized, and return to its original insoluble state.
Around the same time that Lovley made his discovery, another scientist, Kenneth Nealson, discovered a microbe that worked in similar fashion. Nealson called his discovery Shewanella. Though the findings of both scientists were controversial, both were proven correct and important in geological history. Lovley and Nealson had a long-lived rivalry as each continued to learn more about the microbes they had found.
Lovley located at least 70 types of Geobacter, some of which had far-reaching implications. Some types of the bacteria had a role in forming magnetite, a magnetic mineral. Magnetite comprises a vast percentage of the rocks from 500 million years ago. In the early 1990s, Lovley and his team applied their theories about Geobacter to gold and uranium, proving certain types of the microbe could process those metals as well. He believed that Geobacter could be used to clean up toxic waste, such as in water systems with oil problems. The microbe was also believed to be able to break down benzene and toluene. By the early 2000s, Geobacter was used to decontaminate a uranium mine as well as an oil spill, proving Lovley's theory correct.
In 1995, Lovley left the Geological Survey to take a professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The scientist had offers from Ivy League schools, but chose the University of Massachusetts because it allowed him an opportunity to continue doing field work. However, by taking the post, he did spend more time in the laboratory. He focused his research on the life of Geobacter and its biochemical composition. By 1997, Lovley was the head of the department, and in 2000, was named to a distinguished professorship. He also helmed what became known as the Geobacter Project.
Lovley was a very successful professor at the University of Massachusetts in that he was able to obtain a significant amount of grant money for Geobacter-related research. Lovley and his team were granted funds for many different kinds of projects and companies. The funds came from both private and government sources.
Several projects were done in conjunction with the U.S. Navy. In 2000, the Navy found sea muck that was electrified, and Lovley and his lab created sediment batteries. The researchers discovered that Geobacters could donate electrons to an electrode as well as iron. This process created an electrical current, which could power such batteries.
Lovley and his team continued to work on this idea for the U.S. Department of Energy, Naval Research, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 2003, Lovley and one of his scientists discovered Rhodoferax ferrireducens, which had the potential to be a long-term source of energy. That same year, Lovley and his team built a fuel cell, or battery, that used bacteria to turn garbage into energy. The Rhodoferax ferrireducens bacteria in the battery creates the current by feeding on sugars found in carbohydrates. Though the initial fuel cell did not have a lot of power, there was much potential for growth of this idea.
Lovley and his researchers worked on other Geobacter-related projects as well. In 2000, they discovered a bacteria that lived below the surface of the Earth that when placed in oil-rich soil, could quickly convert the oil to methane gas. This discovery had applications in the oil industry, making exploration safer than it had been previously. In 2002, Lovley received an $8.9 million grant over three years from the U.S. Department of Energy to research microbes that could be used to revitalize soil polluted by uranium and to create electricity. In 2003, he received two $900,000 grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to use a type of Geobacter to decontaminate water polluted with uranium because of mining.
Lovley's work was not limited to applications of Geobacter bacteria. He and his team also wanted to learn exactly how the microbes did this work. In conjunction with the Institute of Genomic Research, Lovley studied the genome sequence of the Geobacter as it was being completed. By 2002, they learned that Geobacter metallireducens could find and focus on the metal that keeps it alive. The bacteria could literally swim toward its food source, primarily metal oxides as found in the natural environment. Of his current research, Lovley told Mary Wiltenburg of the Christian Science Monitor, "It's a great time to be a microbiologist. I've got a team of 50 people working with me; almost every day somebody discovers something that changes the way we think about how things work."
Ascribe Newswire, April 12, 2000.
Associated Press State & Local Wire, December 8, 2002.
Boston Globe, September 8, 2003.
Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 2003, p. 16.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 25, 2004, p. 23A.
Science, May 10, 2002, p. 1058.
University Wire, October 14, 2003.
USA Today, September 8, 2003, p. 6D.
"Derek Lovley receives 2004 Proctor & Gamble Award from American Society for Microbiology," http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-04/asfm-drl043004.php (February 1, 2005).
"Derek Lovley," UMass Amherst Microbiology—Faculty, http://www.bio.umass.edu/micro/faculty/Lovley.html (February 1, 2005).
"Geobacter: A Bacterium with Surprising Survival Tactics," Office of Science, Department of Energy, http://www.er.doe.gov/Science_News/feature_articles_2002/June/Geobacter/UMass-Geobacter.htm (February 1, 2005).
"Lovley lands $8.9m grant for microbial studies," Campus Chronicle, http://www.umass.edu/chronicle/archives/02/07-26/Lovley.htm (February 1, 2005).
"The Microbe Master Getting a Charge out of Mud," Time, http://www.time.com/time/2004/innovaters/200401/story.html (February 1, 2005).
"The pervasive presence of microbes," UMass Magazine Online, http://www.umassmag.com/Summer_2003/The_pervasive_presence_of_microbes_508.html (February 1, 2005).
"UMass Faculty Member Receives Federal Funds to Continue Research on Water Cleanup," University of Massachusetts Amherst, http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/archive/2003/072303Lovley.html (February 1, 2005).