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O Bioneers

It wasn’t exactly panning for gold, but a lesson in “bioprospecting,” as it’s called, had students scour the campus looking for something just as valuable: invisible forms of life that could one day be key in developing a sustainable alternative to oil.

“Instead of going out and looking for precious metals, we’re looking for precious microbes,” says John Greenler, director of education and outreach at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and lead instructor of the university’s first bioenergy course for freshmen, held this past fall semester.

“Out in the environment there are a lot of microorganisms that are really good at breaking down fibrous plant material,” Greenler notes—a vexing but essential step in producing biofuel.

“Before I took this class I was only a little curious with the concept of bioenergy. Now I feel involved with bioenergy research and the possibility of using it to solve many environmental, political, and economic problems.” -Michael Polkoff

“We’re hoping to figure out how those microbes do that and then utilize that process to make biofuels—essentially, capture energy for our transportation needs the same way the microbes capture energy as a source of food,” Greenler says.

“Bioenergy: Sustainability, Opportunities and Challenges” debuted as a First-Year Interest Group (FIG) program open to 20 freshmen, and it was snapped up quickly during registration. As the bioprospecting lab shows, the course was designed to have students work on real-world problems researchers face in a new and rapidly growing field.

That includes the frustrations. Student Michael Polkoff reports that the prospecting material chosen by his group—pond scum—came up negative for microbes that produce cellulose-busting enzymes.

“While the results are depressing for the work we put into this—especially going barefoot into a freezing, sludgy drainage pond—it’s part of doing scientific research,” says Polkoff. “Sometimes you get results, other times you don’t. More importantly, we learned how research is done.”

The course has galvanized Polkoff’s interest in bioenergy. “Before I took this class I was only a little curious with the concept of bioenergy,” he says. “Now I feel involved with bioenergy research and the possibility of using it to solve many environmental, political, and economic problems.”

The course is offered through a partnership between the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative. Students visit the UW campus labs of some of the nation’s foremost researchers, and one field trip took them to CALS’ Arlington Research Station to study bioenergy field plots.

The FIG program, which clusters three courses linked by a common theme—the bioenergy course was paired with introductory chemistry and environmental studies—targets low income, minority, “first in family to college students,” says Greenler. “Overall, about 30 percent of students in the FIG program are minorities.”