Interview with research talents

Alberto ScomaAlberto Scoma

Alberto's background
I obtained a M.Sc. in Biological Sciences in 2005 (University of Firenze, IT) and a Ph.D. in Cellular, Molecular and Industrial Biology in 2010 (University of Bologna, IT) working as an external student at the National Council of Research (CNR; Firenze, IT). My field of interest is microbial physiology and ecology, that is, the study of how microbial processes define and are defined by the environment. The ultimate aim is to steer microbial metabolism to develop new biotechnologies. I studied this topic in diverse processes (e.g., photobiological H2 production with green microalgae, lignocellulose degradation in giant panda’s gut and oil bioremediation at deep sea hydrostatic pressure) working in several European countries (Italy, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, Belgium and now Denmark).

Present your project
At the Dept. of Bioscience at Aarhus University, I am presently working on the Self-Healing Cement project. The project aims at developing bio-based solutions to improve cement life. Under certain conditions, microorganisms induce the precipitation of crystals which can seal cracks in cement structures. The project targets cement cast in deep, subseafloor environments, which are characterized by high hydrostatic pressures, high temperatures, lack of oxygen and, when including cement, high pH. Microbes able to survive the concomitant application of multiple stressors are called ‘polyextremophiles’. Understanding how polyextremophiles survive such conditions would help providing the proper environment for their activity (in this case, precipitating more crystals and fix cement).

What do you expect the major challenges in your area of study will be?
While the study of one or two extremes has been rather commonly applied, the use of three (e.g., temperature, pH and pressure) is rare. In particular, the impact of pressure received much less attention, likely due to the fact that special reactors are needed. Culture collections of microbes known to resist these three extremes are not common, so it is unclear how many microorganisms could be actually used to address the questions above. However, this is only due to the fact that research did not focus on this aspect: the deep, subseafloor is an immense source of microbial biodiversity.

How do you plan to contribute in solving these problems?
Within the Self-Healing Cement project, we have developed a fancy cultivation system where we can concomitantly apply these three parameters within an impressive range (pressures up to 1000 bar [equivalent to 10 km below sea surface level], temperature between -80 to 150°C, any pH). This is a unique system which we are using daily to understand the limits of microbial life under these extremes.

What are your expectations for your future career?
I would like to proceed in my research path and create a group of dedicated researchers interested in understanding how life unfolds, what lessons can we learn from that, how to turn this knowledge into applications of societal use.