By Laura Sheahan

Scientist Spotlight: Greg Wanger

Greg Wanger

Greg Wanger was 3.7 km below the Earth’s surface, trapped not only underground but also in a country distant from his native lands of Canada and Liechtenstein. He looked around him. It was very hot and smelled like rotten eggs. As many people do during their graduate careers, Greg pondered the questions: “What was I thinking when I agreed to this project? Does my advisor know what he’s doing? Am I claustrophobic, or just paranoid about being claustrophobic?”

JCVI’s own science version of Indiana Jones, Greg Wanger, joined JCVI as a postdoctoral fellow in the Electromicrobiology Group in the San Diego laboratory in March 2008. His graduate work mirrored projects at JCVI, among them Global Ocean Sampling expedition. He traveled to remote environments (replace Sargasso Sea with South African gold and platinum mines) in search of unknown genes (replace metagenomic ocean sampling with metagenomic deep mine sampling). Greg spent a little more than three months in South Africa as part of a team sampling for unique life. They expected to do metagenomics on a mixed population, but as is often the case in science, turned up something completely different--a single-species ecosystem. Their organism, Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, has been billed as a possible model for alien life, since it lives in very harsh conditions alone without light or oxygen.

Greg’s decision to go into science was formed at the tender age of four when on vacation at the family cottage his uncle’s father, a biology professor, came to visit. The professor had a series of “experiments” laid out for Greg, such as catching and dissecting a fish. At the end of the weekend the professor made Greg promise that he would remain a scientist from that point forward. True to his word, Greg pursued his life-long interests in science. While in college at the University of Western Ontario Greg was one of only two students enrolled in a class on Geomicrobiology. This class was taught by the professor who would turn out to be Greg’s future graduate advisor and really sparked his interest in microbiology. After completing his undergraduate work, he entered graduate school excited about pursing work in this burgeoning new field within the Earth Sciences department.

Wanger continued making fortuitous connections leading to next steps in his scientific career. During his last year of graduate school he attended a conference where he met Yuri Gorby, a pioneer in electromicrobiology research, who offered Wanger a postdoctoral position at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI).

Today at JCVI West Greg is focused on helping to make advances in the new field of electromicrobiology. He, along with others in a team led by Professor Kenneth Nealson, measure long distance electron transport along bacterial nanowires (electrically conductive pili), such as those isolated from bacteria in wastewater, biofilms from pathogenic osteonecrosis of the jaw, and from other electrogenic species. He also uses microbial fuel cells to study the physiology of individual bacteria and complex biofilms, and he can determine the contribution to current production from individual bacteria and within biofilms. Greg and the team hope this work in optimizing microbial fuel cells will lead to new, advanced bioenergy applications.

While Greg misses the extreme seasons of Ontario, he admits that he likes the laid-back style of California, and says that he feels “good” about fish tacos. He has also been able to transplant some of his hobbies here, such as sailing and scuba (yes many people do pursue this sport in Canada since there are a lot of shipwrecks to explore in the Great Lakes).

Note: Adapted from original article written by Gwynedd Benders of the JCVI Synthetic Biology research group.

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