New Synthetic Biology Tools to Track Microbial Dynamics in the Earth System

Microbes drive processes in the Earth system far exceeding their physical scale, mediating significant fluxes in the global carbon and nitrogen cycles. Microbial behavior also affects soil development, water quality, and crop yields. The tools of synthetic biology have the potential to significantly improve our understanding of microbes’ role in the Earth system; however, these tools have not yet seen wide laboratory use because synthetically “programmed” microbes are hard to deploy into many Earth materials, the vast majority of which are not transparent and are heterogeneous (soils, sediments, and biomass). We are developing a new class of volatile gas reporters that will the examination of biological processes in the Earth system using synthetically crafted microbes. We are studying how soil environmental parameters (moisture, nutrient status, mineralogy, structure, and temperature) influence processes such as horizontal gene transfer, microbial cell-cell communication, and the production of proteins that transform soil organic matter and affect its stability. Increasing evidence points to the importance of intercellular signaling in controlling microbial metabolism in populations that generate large fluxes in the global carbon and nitrogen cycles, including three microbial processes (methanogenesis, denitrification, and respiration) that play major roles in maintaining the Earth’s greenhouse.


P.I.s: Carrie Masiello, Joff Silberg, Matt Bennett, George Bennett

researchers: Dr. Xiaodong Gao

graduate students: Shelly Cheng

Postdoctoral Positions in Soil Microbial Processes

The Departments of BioSciences and Earth Science at Rice University are accepting applications for multiple postdoctoral positions in the area of soil microbial processes. We seek excellent candidates with a strong background in soil microbial processes, application of –omics techniques in the Earth sciences, and/or synthetic biology. These postdoctoral positions are a unique opportunity for researchers with backgrounds in biology and/or the Earth sciences to become part of a team developing new synthetic biology tools to track microbial dynamics in soils and sediments. A Ph.D. in the biological sciences, Earth sciences or a related field is required at the time of appointment. These are one-year, full-time, benefits-eligible positions with future years contingent upon performance and funding.

Rice University is a highly ranked, non-sectarian, private research university located in Houston, Texas, a dynamic, cosmopolitan city that is the 4th largest in the nation. Rice occupies a 300-acre, tree-shaded campus adjacent to Houston’s Museum District and the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical complex. Rice has a highly diverse and international student body and strong culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Interested applicants should send a letter of research interests, a full CV, and the names of three references to Sandra Flechsig, Keck Biosensor Postdoc Search, Dept. of Earth Science, Rice University, 6100 Main Street, MS 126, Houston, TX 77005; Email: The positions will remain open until filled.