Research Interests and Accomplishments
Dr. Bretschger received her B.S. in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Northern Arizona, and after a five year career in aerospace and consulting, she completed a Ph.D. in Materials Science at the University of Southern California. Dr. Bretschger joined the J. Craig Venter Institute in 2008 and over the course of her research tenure, she has established a productive team of researchers dedicated to understanding the fundamental mechanisms associated with extracellular electron transfer (a process that enables microbes to respire solid surfaces, i.e., “breathe rocks”) and applying that understanding to technology development for bioremediation, bioenergy, and water recycling.
Her research group has secured nearly $12M of external funding from diverse resources including NASA, The State of California, The San Diego Foundation - Blasker Science and Technology Award, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, SPAWAR, Synthetic Genomics Inc. and the Roddenberry Foundation. Her publications have drawn over 800 citations and most recently includes an article in Nature Communications, which describes a novel metatranscriptomic method for understanding metabolic relationships in highly diverse (over 400 species) microbial communities and new findings related to how microbes share electrons. The approach developed by her team can now be applied to many different environmental samples and begin to unravel the complex interactions that exist in our sediments, soils, oceans and fresh water resources. These studies will shed new light on how our changing environment will impact ecosystem function.
Her applied projects include the development and integration of microbial fuel cell systems that can remove contaminants from wastewater and transforms the waste into direct electrical energy. Her most recent awards include a $5M grant from the Roddenberry Foundation to demonstrate her microbial fuel cell technology as a sustainable sanitation approach to address the sanitation and related public health impacts in developing countries. Further, a recent award from SPAWAR Pacific is testing her technology at an S.E.R.E training base outside of San Diego and demonstrate its effectiveness for providing cost-effective water recycling and wastewater treatment to our military forward operating bases.
Dr. Bretschger has developed methods for how to apply her technology for the removal of medications and other toxic personal care products from wastewater; and is developing new methods for addressing the removal of nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural waste streams (two big factors in creating ‘dead zones’ in our coastal waters).
Additionally, Dr. Bretschger’s work with NASA Ames researchers has begun to reveal how microbes can use electricity and carbon dioxide to create useful products like fuels (methane) and other useful products (e.g. nutritional supplements and bioplastics).
She directs a lab of thirteen researchers and interns (high school through master’s level students) and conducts collaborative work throughout San Diego and across the international border. Her installations can be seen at the San Pasqual High School Agricultural center and EcoParque in Tijuana. Dr. Bretschger’s Roddenberry funded efforts will lead to the installation of improved sanitation systems at schools in Mexico over the next two years, and she hopes to expand these efforts globally to begin addressing the critical sanitation needs for nearly 2.4 billion people world-wide.