Category Archives: Funded Projects

Unicorns versus Narwhals | I’m on Public Radio!

OK, so this isn’t a new interview, but I thought I would post it retrospectively. In #scicomm class this week we talked about being interviewed. Aaron’s interview is HERE and Sheril has tons of interviews online. We noticed a lot of variation in interviewer skill and how “excited” each of us sounded. Here are a couple things I did that the class agreed worked OK:

  • I tried really really hard to not do the up-voice thing at the end of sentences
  • I said “this is really cool” and “the most exciting thing” as many times as I could
  • I tried to explain jargon on the fly

I did this interview over the phone and I wish I had had a better set up–sound quality makes a huge difference in how good thing sound.

My interview about the mythical “Oxygen-tolerant Nitrogenase” aired on “Stateside” Michigan Radio March 7, 2016 with the following blurb:

  • You could argue that research scientists today chase unicorns: If they are able to prove the existence of some myth, they could make the world a better place. Maren Friesen has done exactly that


I admit it, I like unicorns. (Who doesn’t like unicorns?) But I like narwhals better, because they’re real. I own a stuffed narwhal named Nar-walter. I recently received a narwhal tea-infuser. And a pair of socks with a narwhal crossing horns with a unicorn. But the main message that barely got across in the interview is that we DID NOT find the unicorn. Or rather, we found it and it was a narwhal that doesn’t fix nitrogen in the presence of oxygen.

Narwhal beats Unicorn! Go Science!

It would be really great if there were enzymes that could fix nitrogen without being so sensitive to oxygen, but so far it looks like we need to keep exploring within the classical Mo, V, and Fe enzymes that are known.

New Friesen lab paper out in the ISME Journal

Jeff and Maren’s new perspectives paper about exoenzyme production by free-living diazotrophs is available online in the ISME Journal! The paper is open access and can be viewed at the link below:

This paper lays out the conceptual basis for a lot of the experiments we’re conducting in association with our EAGER grant (info on that here).

Maren and Jeff got an EAGER Grant Funded!

Jeff here – Maren and I were recently invited to submit an EAGER grant based on a pre-proposal we submitted to NSF earlier this year – we just found out that our grant got funded!

EAGER stands for “Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research” and NSF says that “the EAGER funding mechanism can be used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ides or approaches.”

We’ve got two years of funding to investigate how recalcitrant N regulates fixation by free-living microbes in both pure culture and in soil ecosystems….and I couldn’t be more excited!  More info in the award announcement below:

(As a side note) This is the first Friesen Lab grant to be funded by the Ecosystem Science Cluster at NSF!

Medicago Invasions Update

Maren was recently out at UC Riverside visiting Stephanie Porter and her technician Zoie Lopez, our collaborators on the NSF project exploring how mutualisms are reshaped by the invasion of novel habitats. Maren and Stef will be traveling to Europe this summer to collect new populations of plants and symbionts for downstream experiments. The greenhouse setup at UCR is beautiful!

photo 1  photo 3

photo 2

Microbe hunting in Centralia PA

Our search for oxygen-tolerant nitrogen fixers took us to Centralia PA in February


Centralia is a ghost town in central Pennsylvania that has had a coal fire burning underneath of it for the past 60 years.  Due to the hot temperatures and elevated levels of carbon monoxide, the soils of Centralia could host some interesting microorganisms.

Maren and Jeff managed to find a two day window between polar vortices in which they could make the 8 hour trek from Michigan to grab some soil for sampling.   First we found the gash in the abandoned stretch of route 61 that appears in so many Centralia pictures:


However, asphalt doesn’t make for great sampling:


We quickly moved on to this hillside near the town cemetery:


Areas with a conspicuous lack of snow helped identify hot patches worth sampling:


Some places even had steam coming out from the ground:


Amazingly, just 20 cm down, our temperature probe read 60 deg. C!


We grabbed some soil and made our way back to the lab:


Culturing efforts are underway….

Maren & Colleen visit Imperial College

… and somehow manage to take exactly zero pictures. We had some good long chats with Bill Rutherford and James Murray about our new Nitrogenase project, and had an epic tourist afternoon with Bill in which we visited:

  • Albert Hall
  • Kensington Gardens (we glimpsed the Prince’s palace)
  • Marble Arch
  • the massive barbed wire around Buckingham Palace
  • the Victoria Station construction site
  • Westminster Cathedral
  • Westminster Abbey
  • House of Parliament
  • The London Eye
  • Drummond St. (for Indian food)
  • St. Pancras station (ie. Valhalla)
  • SoHo

It was great to talk science and see the Imperial lab setup, including going for very traditional fish & chips with tartar sauce and mushy peas with Bill’s lab!

Maren imported some (double-sealed) strains with an official letter from Bill that verified that they were legit. We got through customs with flying colors and are now doing some more culturing here at MSU…

First Grant: “Oxygen-tolerant nitrogenase”

The Friesen lab’s first NSF award was announced today and picked up by the MSU news. We will be collaborating with a team at Imperial College London led by Bill Rutherford and Martin Buck, with Research Fellow James Murray playing a major role. The project emerged from an “Ideas Lab” in December 2012 that brought together scientists from the US and UK to formulate projects that have the potential to transform how we supply crops with nitrogen. Maren and Bill were paired as “buddies” during the Ideas Lab, and the conversations went from there!

Go Greeen!

The goal of the project will be to isolate and characterize organisms that may have enzyme systems that can fix atmospheric nitrogen in the presence of oxygen, a talent that is lacking in conventional nitrogenase enzymes (such as those contained by the rhizobia that symbiose with legumes). We are especially excited about the potential downstream applications that such an enzyme system would enable, including plants that can fix nitrogen without bacterial partners. Other projects funded by this program seek to engineer nitrogen-fixing organelles (“nitroplasts”), synthetic symbioses between grasses and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and nitrogen-fixing systems inside oxygenic cyanobacteria.

I have long wondered why more plants don’t associate with nitrogen-fixing symbionts, as well as why rhizobia haven’t evolved to be transmitted from parent to offspring. Perhaps these projects will give an experimental glimpse into these questions.