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EMSL Awards Exploratory Research Funding to 17 Projects

Research focuses on global climate change, plastic pollution, and methane production  

ocean pollution

Seventeen scientists from across the world have been awarded Exploratory Research funding from the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL). 

The fiscal year 2024 awardees represent a range of research projects focused on aerosols, plastic pollution, methane production, and global climate change. 

Through these awards, principal investigators and their research teams will have nine months of access and use of EMSL’s advanced scientific instrumentation, resources, and expertise. EMSL is a Department of Energy, Office of Science user facility sponsored by the Biological and Environmental Research program.  

Six of the 17 awardees are first-time principal investigators at EMSL. All awardees were selected following a dual anonymous proposal peer review, which has shown to reduce bias in the evaluation of proposals.  

Exploratory Research is conducted in EMSL’s three science areas─environmental, biological, or computational sciences—and works with instrument experts in related Integrated Research Platforms. Projects begin January 1, 2024. 

The following are the awardees of the fiscal year 24 proposal call by science area.  

Environmental Transformations and Interactions 

Impact of salinity on dissolved organic matter release from soils following seawater inundation Edward O'Loughlin

Edward O’Loughlin 

Argonne National Laboratory 

This project will evaluate how terrestrial carbon stocks sequestered in coastal landscapes respond to changing hydrological conditions. Researchers will test the hypothesis that the release of dissolved organic matter (from upland soils inundated by seawater during storm surges becomes elevated after exposure to freshwater from rain.

Metabolomics imaging of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi to inform a tri-partite metabolic model  Erin Nuccio

Erin Nuccio 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory 

Scientists will use a unique suite of bioimaging and mass spectrometry imaging techniques to answer fundamental questions about mycorrhizal fungi. This research and subsequent modeling efforts will contribute to improving understanding and prediction of biological processes that can enhance bioenergy production, sustainability, and carbon sequestration. 

Resilience of amino acid-mineral assemblages Maya Engel

Maya Engel 

Hebrew University of Jerusalem 

Organic matter-mineral associations play a key role in organic matter and mineral dynamics. Researchers will investigate the fine line between stability and reactivity of amino acid-iron mineral assemblages under redox active conditions. Visualizing the molecular-scale structural and compositional modifications in the assemblages will provide valuable information on the mechanisms controlling organic matter persistence and mineral transformation in the environment. 

Measuring physical, chemical, and optical properties, and ice nucleation activities of aerosol particles in the European Arctic 

Stefania Gilardoni Stefania Gilardoni

National Research Council - Institute of Polar Sciences CNR-ISP 

This study aims to improve understanding of the climate effects of aerosols on the European Arctic. Aerosol samples collected in Svalbard will be analyzed at EMSL to determine their chemical and microphysical properties and their roles in ice nucleation. 


Characterizing rhizosphere size and composition under distinct plant water use strategies Itmar Shabtai

Itamar Shabtai 

Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station 

In this research, scientists intend to delineate the relationship between water availability and root exudate spatial patterns and chemical composition using maize. The team plans to use the slow-activating anion channel 1 gene to study the impact of limited water availability, a key stressor associated with global warming, on rhizosphere spatial patterns and composition.  

Size-resolved physicochemical properties of biomass burning aerosol Manish Shrivastava

Manishkumar Shrivastava 

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory 

Biomass burning aerosol (BBA) is a major component of atmospheric aerosols and plays critical roles in the climate. In this study, researchers aim to improve the current uncertainties in climate models related to fundamental understanding of physiochemical properties by characterizing the size-resolved physicochemical properties of BBA and investigating the dependence of physicochemical properties of BBA on combustion temperature. 

The elusive structure and function of peatland fine rootsAvni Malhotra 

Avni Malhotra 

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory 

Researchers will estimate structural root trait responses to climate change and test the impacts of these root structural changes on carbon cycle processes. This research is designed to improve understanding and prediction of peatland soil carbon responses to climate change. 

New insights into phosphorus acquisition strategies by quantifying untargeted metabolites in dryland soils Kalpana Kukreja

Kalpana Kukreja 

University of Texas at El Paso 

This study focuses on using metabolomics to address knowledge gaps in the availability and biogeochemistry of phosphorus in carbonate-dominated Chihuahuan Desert soils. Research insights gained by investigating relevant soil metabolites for the phosphorus-cycle will benefit a range of scales, from regional (Chihuahuan Desert) to global (drylands), advancing understanding of biogeochemical processes vital for sustaining Earth's critical zone systems and functions. 

Characterization of micro- and nano-plastics formed and emitted from biomass burning Marwa El-Sayed

Marwa El-Sayed 

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University 

The aim of this study is to characterize plastic particles that arise as an emerging concern from biomass burning. This characterization entails determining their concentrations, size distribution, and chemical composition at varying combustion conditions. Results from this work have implications for emissions from burning houses during wildfires in addition to human-made open burns and incineration processes of plastic waste.   

Functional and Systems Biology 

Quantifying the contribution of methylotrophy to methane production from freshwater wetlands Jared Ellenbogen

Jared Ellenbogen 

Colorado State University 

In this project, researchers will delve into methane-relevant methylotrophic metabolisms, or metabolisms of methylated compounds (i.e. methanol), and the microbial methylotrophic food web in wetland soils. The quantitative and physiological data from this research will better inform and further predictive abilities to understand terrestrial freshwater methane fluxes. 


Tracking microbial microplastic transformations in marine waters using stable isotope-informed metaproteogenomics Ryan Ziels

Ryan Ziels 

University of British Columbia 

The lifetime of plastic in the environment and the stability of its carbon polymers are not well understood. The breakdown and transformation of plastic polymers by environmental microorganisms could play a substantial role in global carbon cycling. A team will use a suite of multi-omics approaches to expand quantitative understanding of microplastic degradation and transformation by marine microorganisms.  

Methanotrophy inside-out: metals and metabolism Marina Kalyuzhnaya 

Marina Kalyuzhnaya 

San Diego State University 

Scientists will work to uncover the fundamental mechanisms that enable biological systems to scavenge metals from the environment and switch biochemical pathways in response to metal availability. The goal is to advance the understanding of the intricacy of metabolic solutions to provide a promising framework for the production of biofuels and biochemicals as well as metal sequestration. 

Visualizing the unknown: Structural elucidation of CLR-3, a domain-of-unknown-function protein from Neurospora crassa Phillipp Benz

Philipp Benz 

Technische Universität München 

This team will study a protein in Neurospora crassa interacting with the main activator of the cellulolytic response in this filamentous fungus and visualize the molecular structure and dynamics in response to relevant inducer molecules. The resulting data will expand understanding of proteins and pathways that connect structures and functions to phenotypic responses within cells and their environment for microbes. 

Systems-level identification and comparison of Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans tolerance mechanisms to cobalt, lithium, and nickel 

Allison Werner ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Allison Werner

National Renewable Energy Laboratory 

This project aims to understand the molecular basis for A. ferrooxidans tolerance and adaption to high concentrations of cobalt, nickel, and lithium, which are important metals in lithium-ion batteries. Understanding the mechanisms by which this bacterium interacts with and/or tolerates high concentrations of metals will advance the ability to control the function of natural or engineered systems.

A multi-omics approach to reveal cell-type-specific lipid metabolism in stomatal cells of bioenergy crops Andrew Leakey

Andrew Leakey ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 

In this project, scientists will use laser capture microdissection as a technique for cell type-specific analysis of stomatal complexes in grasses and will identify a detailed multi-omics profile of wildtype sugarcane at dawn. This research will advance the understanding of foundational stomatal biology and allow researchers to design biofuel crops for sustainable production of sustainable aviation fuel. 

Computing, Analytics, and Modeling 

Exploratory analysis of glycine peptide sorption on Ferrihydrite using calorimetric techniques and molecular dynamics simulations 

Omar Harvey ​​​​​​​Omar Harvey

Texas Christian University 

In this project, researchers will examine energy-mass sorption characteristics of a glycine peptide series on ferrihydrite─a chemical compound found in soils and sediments─and compare the experimental data to theoretical model simulations. This research aims to improve understanding of organic-mineral associations and its dynamics in response to environmental perturbations.

High-resolution mapping of global cropland greenhouse gas emissions under changing climate Dominic Woolf

Dominic Woolf 

Cornell University 

Researchers will quantify soil organic carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane emissions responses in major commodity crops and the variation of these responses under site-specific management and environmental conditions. The team will provide high-resolution maps (at the individual farm or field scale) to inform on the feasibility of converting global agricultural soils from net emitters to net sinks of greenhouse gases.