Montana State University

MSU biochemist named NASA Early Career Fellow for research on ‘magnetic’ bacteria

August 21, 2017 -- By Evelyn Boswell for MSU News Service

Roland Hatzenpichler, assistant professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University, has been named a NASA Early Career Fellow. Hatzenpichler studies multicellular bacteria that live in salt marsh sediments. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMMB reacting to repeatedly turning a magnet as seen through a microscope. Each ball is a clump of about 20 cells acting together. Video by Shapiro and Hatzenpichler

Roland Hatzenpichler, assistant professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University, has been named a NASA Early Career Fellow. Hatzenpichler studies multicellular bacteria that live in salt marsh sediments. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN -- A group of salt-loving bacteria with ‘magnetic’ powers happens to be the perfect organism for trying to understand the development of complex life, says a Montana State University biochemist who was recently named a NASA Early Career Fellow.

Since NASA and the astrobiology community have made it a priority to understand the origin, evolution and organization of multicellular organisms, he will use his fellowship to study this unique bacteria, said Roland Hatzenpichler, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU’s College of Letters and Science.

"One of the biggest problems in evolutionary biology is how the transition from comparatively simple forms of life to something as complex as us occurs," Hatzenpichler said. "It's not really understood how that transition to organized, complex life happens. The only thing clear is that it happened very often in evolution."

These unusual bacteria, called multicellular magnetotactic bacteria, or MMB, live in the sediments below certain salt marshes and tidal pools on both coasts of the United States. The bacteria contain tiny magnetic crystals that allow the cell clumps to orient themselves in Earth's magnetic field. This leads the bacteria -- moving about as fast as a cheetah -- down into the sediments where they find nutrients needed for their survival. Beyond that, MMB are the only known bacteria that live an obligate multicellular lifestyle, which makes it ideal for his research, Hatzenpichler said.

Hatzenpichler will study MMB from three different locations in California and Massachusetts. His main study site is the Little Sippewissett salt marsh on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

"The fellowship award speaks to the promise of Roland's scientific contributions," said Matthew Fields, director of MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering and one of Hatzenpichler's collaborators. "In addition, my lab has worked with Roland in applying some of the techniques he developed to our environments of interest and I look forward to many fruitful collaborations with Roland in the Center for Biofilm Engineering."

Hatzenpichler said scientists have long tried to find organisms that were in the process of transitioning from single cells to multicellular organisms. They knew such transitions occurred. They had seen evidence in 25 separate lineages of life.

"We observe this over and over and over in life on our planet, but we don't understand the underlying mechanisms,” Hatzenpichler said.

Past studies on the transition from single cells to multicellular entities mostly focused on algae and simple animals, Hatzenpichler said. Scientists did look at multicellular forms of bacteria, but they realized MMB were different because they don't have a stage where it exists as a single cell. Instead, it starts out as a clump of 10 to 60 cells arranged in symmetry around a central hollow compartment. When the clumps divide, they form two seemingly identical groups of cells. The number of cells around that central compartment stays the same.

"These characteristics render MMB the only identified bacteria with an obligate multicellular lifestyle and make them a prime subject for the study of the early evolution of advanced life, most importantly the origins of and environmental factors driving multicellularity, as well as the cellular organization of complex life," Hatzenpichler said.

He said he plans to study the biology of MMB with cutting-edge molecular biological and microbiological approaches. Among other things, he wants to understand how the cells communicate and stick together. He also wants to learn more about their metabolism and whether they collaborate with each other, similar to how different organs work together to keep an animal alive.

"Roland's work focuses on novel and unique microorganisms that live in different environments, but are difficult to grow in the laboratory," Fields said. "Because they are difficult to grow in the lab, we know very little about their metabolism -- including how they process carbon and other nutrients -- even though they can be abundant.

"Roland's work not only targets these organisms that play important roles in the planet's geochemical cycles, but also pioneers the techniques to bring them from their respective environments to the lab," Fields said.

Hatzenpichler is a native of Austria and was the first in his family to attend college. After earning his master’s degree, he received a pre-doctoral fellowship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He earned his doctorate in microbial ecology at the University of Vienna in 2011. The same year, the Austrian Science Fund named him an Erwin Schroedinger Postdoctoral Fellow and the California Institute of Technology awarded him an O.K. Earl Postdoctoral Fellowship in geobiology.

Hatzenpichler moved to the United States in 2011 to conduct postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology. Three years later, he received a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation’s Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigation. Dark energy in this case refers to life that doesn't need light. Hatzenpichler moved to MSU last summer and set up his laboratory in January 2017.

Before coming to MSU, Hatzenpichler met Fields and Kristen Brileya, technical operations manager for the CBE, when they visited the Department of Microbial Ecology at the University of Vienna where he was conducting his doctoral research and now, they work together, he said.

He said he was drawn to MSU by the opportunity to conduct research in Yellowstone National Park.

"MSU is pretty much the perfect place to do environmental microbial research," he added.

Mary Cloninger, head of MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said Hatzenpichler is a "fantastic addition" to the university and the department.

"We are delighted that his creative approach to complex research problems is already being recognized by the scientific community," Cloninger said. "His research involving systems that are relatively unstudied and are often difficult to grow in the laboratory opens up an exciting new area of biochemistry within the department."

In addition to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the CBE, Hatzenpichler is affiliated with MSU's Thermal Biology Institute.

To learn more about Hatzenpichler’s research, visit the Hatzenpichler Environmental Microbiology Lab at

Contact Roland Hatzenpichler, or 406-994-5469