Had he not grown up during the time of the first Earth Day and the Vietnam War -- and had those events not pushed him to want to make major improvements for society -- Bruce Rittmann might have used his degree in engineering to design bridges and other civic structures. Instead, he is working as the director of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, and trying to find replacements for the fossil fuels we're quickly running out of. A leader in managing microbial communities (more on that later), Rittmann is also working to treat water and clean up pollution.
Here, Rittmann discusses a revolutionary innovation that directs photosynthesis to make fuel molecules as a potential substitute for petroleum; the ideal win-win situation, a partnership between microbial workers and human managers; and how working out in the gym has turned him on to country music videos and Reba McEntire.
What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"
As the director of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology, I start by explaining environmental biotechnology. The description goes like this: I manage microbial communities to provide services to society. The services are at the core of water and energy sustainability. The water side involves improving water quality. Microorganisms clean up contaminated water so it can be used by humans or returned to support natural systems. The energy side means producing truly renewable forms of energy in ways that don't harm the environment. The "workers" in our service business are a wide range of microorganisms. Microorganisms are everywhere: on your skin, on your teeth, on river rock, and deep below the sea. Their normal metabolism -- eating and metabolizing what they've eaten -- provides all sorts of services that humans need. For them, biodegrading pollutants or producing fuels is simply part of their normal life. What we want to do is manage the microorganisms so that they provide the services reliably and at the necessary rate.