Back in the 1970s, Mary Lidstrom was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, getting ready to work with a professor who focused on bacteria that cause plant tumors. Instead, he talked her into joining his newer research with microbes that live on single-carbon compounds.
She was fascinated with those methylotrophs. “I fell in love with the fact that they could use such a simple, reduced compound,” the AAAS Fellow recalled.
Like so many passions, this one began almost by accident.
Today, Lidstrom holds the Frank Jungers chair of engineering in the chemical engineering department at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she is also a professor of microbiology and vice provost of research. She is still enamored with the inner workings — and the promise — of these microbes.
During the past four decades, even when her research branched out in other directions, new developments that underscore their potential have drawn Lidstrom back repeatedly to methylotrophs, including the subset that lives on methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. She has probed their metabolism and physiology, using and developing increasingly sophisticated approaches in molecular genetics. She has won international recognition for improving our understanding of organisms that cycle methane through our environment. And she has helped pave the way for genetically engineering methlyotrophs so they could be harnessed, like tiny factories, to produce specialty chemicals and, perhaps, feedstocks for consumer goods.
“How far away are we from going into a store and buying something made from methane? It’s five to 10 years at least,” said Lidstrom. The idea that some of today’s petroleum products, from plastics to fabrics to building materials, might be tomorrow’s methane products has tantalizing implications. Methane is relatively cheap. It is produced at places where we now have little use for it, wafting from landfills and the manure at feedlots. It causes an estimated 20 to 25 times more global warming than the same amount of carbon dioxide. So it is no surprise that Lidstrom’s lab has attracted funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a federal program modeled after DARPA, the military research effort that helped spawn the Internet.
“The ARPA-E funding in this whole area has made a huge impact,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I’m as optimistic as I am.”
Lidstrom speaks with a smile in her voice, a gentle lilt buoyed by enthusiasm. Her light brown hair is threaded with gray and well-tamed, curling evenly inward. On her left wrist, a Mickey Mouse watch peeks out from beneath her jacket cuff, a reminder “not to take myself so seriously.” She’s worn Mickey Mouse since her days at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where she taught in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s where she learned her engineering, at a time when it was less common for biology and engineering to intertwine as closely as they do now.
“It’s very natural to put those two together if you want to harness biology,” she said. Her graduate students and postdocs are divided evenly among engineers and biologists, and Lidstrom has won recognition for developing teaching strategies to bring engineers up to speed quickly for microbial research. “In my lab, it takes less than a year.”
Lidstrom’s lab shares the top floor of UW’s Benjamin Hall Interdisciplinary Research Building, overlooking a waterscape of working marinas, docks and a drawbridge. It’s an airy, light-filled space that she helped design when the building was going up, about 10 years ago. On the day we meet there, an incubator shaker is jostling small bottles of methane-using microbes from Lake Washington. Nearby, pietri dishes are tucked inside a small chamber, the kind often used to create anaerobic conditions, but this time keeping the atmosphere at about 50 percent methane.
While serious progress has been made in putting methanotrophs to work, and some companies are already on the path to commercialization, Lidstrom can still tick off a list of what must be mastered to ensure long-term success. Some are engineering problems, involving the right amount of methane for speedy processing. Others deal with fine-tuning the right strain of microbe and better understanding its metabolism. Lidstrom is particularly excited about recent work that suggests these microbes are much more energy efficient than everyone thought. “That’s what’s so much fun about science,” she said. “There can be these big surprises just lurking if you keep your eyes open.”
Staying open-eyed across multiple disciplines is one of Lidstrom’s biggest accomplishments.
“She has been a pioneer,” said Colin Murrell, director of the Earth and Life Systems Alliance at the University of East Anglia in England.
“A great strength of Mary’s research over the past few decades is that she can work in a multidisciplinary setting,” Murrell said, “bringing together chemical and biochemical engineers, modelers, microbiologists, molecular biologists, biochemists and industrialists to tackle major questions.”
Despite her love of research, Lidstrom says the best part of her work is the people she teaches. She wants young scientists to know how satisfying being a professor can be, and that it’s worth the effort, despite any temporary setbacks. While Lidstrom’s vice provost role consumes about 75 percent of her time, she relishes the three afternoons she spends each week in the office beside her lab.
“It’s so grounding here,” she says, looking out over Lake Union toward Seattle’s Space Needle. “I switch when I come here. I put my teaching hat on.”