Montana State University

MSU alumna wins fellowship to research how microbes survive deep inside Earth’s crust

May 10, 2017 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

MSU alumna Jayme-Feyhl-Buska has received a Graduate Research Fellowship Program award from the National Science Foundation to support her research in how microbes survive deep inside Earth's crust. MSU alumna Jayme Fehyl-Buska has received a Graduate Research Fellowship Program award from the National Science Foundation to support her research in how microbes survive deep inside Earth's crust. Photo courtesy Jayme Fehyl-Buska.

MSU alumna Jayme-Feyhl-Buska has received a Graduate Research Fellowship Program award from the National Science Foundation to support her research in how microbes survive deep inside Earth's crust.

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BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University graduate who researches how microbes survive deep inside Earth’s crust has won a fellowship from the National Science Foundation that will fund her research for the next three years. The research may lead to a better understanding of the potential for sub-surface life on other planets.

Jayme Feyhl-Buska, a 2014 graduate of MSU’s Department of Ecology in the College of Letters and Science, received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program award that will give her an annual stipend of $34,000 in addition to $12,000 a year for tuition, fees and other education costs.

“I was absolutely delighted to find out that I had won the GRFP and, honestly, somewhat surprised,” said Feyhl-Buska. “This means I will be free to conduct research full-time for the next three years and will have the supplies and support necessary to do so.”

Feyhl-Buska, who is from Lebanon, New Hampshire, is currently doing research at the University of Southern California as part of Professor Jan Amend’s NASA Astrobiology Institute Life Underground Team. There, Feyhl-Buska uses samples from the Sanford Underground Research Facility, or SURF, to study microbes that live in extreme environments. Amend is a professor of Earth sciences and biological sciences as well as director of USC’s Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations.

“SURF is a fantastic ‘extreme environment’ for my research because formerly having been the Homestake Gold Mine, it has the facilities necessary to bring researchers as deep as 4,850 feet below the surface of Earth in order to access rocks and groundwater that experience no sunlight and contain very little carbon for microbes to eat,” Feyhl-Buska said of the facility in Lead, South Dakota.

She said that understanding how microbes can survive in that type of environment helps scientists assess how they might be able to survive in similar environments on other planets, such as Mars.

One particular challenge with finding life on Mars arises from the physical detection of that life, Feyhl-Buska said, because life in extremely low-energy conditions grows very slowly, almost too slowly to measure.

To address this problem, she collects samples from the groundwater at SURF and uses a highly sensitive machine called a nanocalorimeter that can measure heat production by microbes. She said that if the microbes produce heat over time, this indicates that they are breaking chemical bonds, perhaps to use for energy or to maintain their cellular structure.

Adding compounds, such as ammonium or sulfate, that allow those microbe samples to gain energy, Feyhl-Buska can then measure the amount of heat the microbes produce to see if they are using the compounds. To help make sense of her results, she also uses metatranscriptomics, a technique that lets her look at microbe RNA to see what they are actively doing in the environment.

By combining metatranscriptomics with nanocalorimetry, Feyhl-Buska can then determine what sources of energy the microbes utilize to survive deep within Earth’s continental crust.

As an undergraduate, Feyhl-Buska worked on a number of projects in the MSU GeoBiology Lab under its director, Eric Boyd, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science.

“I did my undergraduate thesis on determining how microbes affect and are affected by the different layers of chemical species present throughout the depths of Georgetown Lake,” Feyhl-Buska said. “I also had a project that involved testing a new species of bacteria that we found at Yellowstone in order to assess its potential in cleaning up contaminated places, like the Berkeley Pit, and another project that involved comparing the microbial communities living in the water of Yellowstone's hot springs and the soil underneath them.”

Feyhl-Buska’s first paper as lead author was published while under Boyd’s mentorship. The paper stemmed from research she performed at Tongji University in Shanghai, China, as part of an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates. For the research, she examined how a microbe that thrives under extremely acidic conditions changes the lipids that make up its cellular membrane over its lifetime in response to environmental stresses.

“Dr. Boyd inspired me to study life in extreme environments and provided me with incredible mentorship and fantastic research opportunities,” Feyhl-Buska said. “He taught me how to be a good scientist, a good mentor and strong science communicator. He also let me conduct a lot of fieldwork in Yellowstone National Park, which is always a plus.”

Boyd said he isn’t surprised by the level of success Feyhl-Buska has achieved.

“She displays all of the traits that define success in sciences,” he said. “Jayme expresses the intangibles that make for a successful scientist – the ability to listen and field criticism in a positive way, think and solve problems independently, work well with others, mentor other undergraduate students, and do all of this while maintaining a very positive and creative attitude.”

After graduating from MSU, Feyhl-Buska worked for nearly a year as manager of Boyd’s lab.

“Jayme drove four independent research projects, has currently published on some of these projects and coordinated my entire lab group,” Boyd said. “Simply put, Jayme is an amazing individual. I look forward to seeing her continued success under the guidance of Dr. Jan Amend at USC.”

At MSU, Feyhl-Buska was a Presidential Scholar and a student in the MSU Honors College. She said she is grateful for the opportunities both presented in helping her find her academic path.

“The Presidential Scholarship not only covered the costs of my tuition, it also put me in contact with some fantastic people and launched me into some wonderful opportunities,” she said. “In fact, I would probably not be in the field of microbiology if it were not for the people that I met through this scholarship.”

Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of MSU’s Honors College, said she clearly remembers her first meeting with Feyhl-Buska for the Presidential Scholarship interview.

“Jayme impressed our committee with her brilliant intellect and thoughtful answers,” Lee said. “We knew that she was on a trajectory toward tremendous success as an emerging scientist, and we are very proud of her achievements.”

 After earning her doctorate, Feyhl-Buska plans to work as a postdoctoral researcher before moving on to fulfill other career goals.

“Eventually, I would really like to work for NASA on life-detection missions, trying to better understand the origin of life and the potential for life on other planets,” she said. “Alternatively, I would also enjoy becoming a professor, knowing that I would have the freedom to research microbes living in extreme environments and would be able to mentor and inspire students within this field.”

Jayme Feyhl-Buska,