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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Celebrating 40 Years of Science & Discovery

EMSL Grand Challenges expected to produce grand advances

In an effort to continue to strengthen and focus its user program, PNNL's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) is challenging the traditional approach to research. EMSL scientists are designing an alternative approach geared toward making the rapid integration of scientific findings a part of the scientific process from the beginning. The result is the Scientific Grand Challenge, a coordinated, multi-investigator research effort to resolve a challenging scientific issue.

Designed to last three to five years, Scientific Grand Challenges pose a significant scientific question that requires access to EMSL's cutting-edge resources—specialized instruments, computational tools and research teams. Additionally, Grand Challenge research at EMSL is possible through collaborative, interdisciplinary science teams assembled from PNNL, academia and other national laboratories.

"These teams bring together international expertise to advance an area of science in ways that haven't been possible before," said Allison Campbell, interim EMSL director.

One key to integrating these teams is to provide rapid feedback to all science team members. "Through EMSL's unique suite of instrumentation and expertise, teams will have ready access to data, samples and feedback on their experiments," said Campbell. "This type of integration will rapidly drive answers to the questions of the Grand Challenges."

Two Grand Challenges are currently under way, with teams of scientists from several disciplines and institutions approaching each challenge from several different directions simultaneously.

The first focuses on a biogeo-chemistry question concerning the fundamental interaction between microbes and minerals. This project is led by PNNL researchers and involves roughly 20 primary investigators. The biogeochemistry Grand Challenge has implications for everything from understanding energy and nutrient transport in microbial and mineral systems to waste remediation.

The second Grand Challenge is in membrane biology—addressing the structure and function of proteins in the cell membrane—and is led by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. Membrane processes are critical to solving highly complex problems related to carbon sequestration and energy transduction. Results from this study will have implications for providing enabling technologies to examine complex biological processes—allowing better understanding of how organisms behave and respond to environmental changes.

Scientific Grand Challenges pose a significant question that requires access to EMSL's cutting-edge resources. Two Grand Challenges are currently under way, one in biogeochemistry and one in membrane biology.

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