Serendipity, Sulfur bacteria, and Open Science: interview with Tom Hanson

Meet Professor Tom Hanson, Associate Director of the Marine Bioscience Program in the College of Earth, Ocean & Environment of the University of Delaware, and Specialty Chief Editor Microbial Physiology and Metabolism in Frontiers in Microbiology. Tom Hanson is an expert on the metabolism and physiology of photosynthetic microbes. Already as a young researcher in 2005, Hanson was awarded a NSF CAREER Award, one of the NSF’s highest honors for new faculty members. Here, in an interview in our Science Heroes series, he talks about his career, his research, the need for undirected basic science, and how Open Science is beneficial to scientists and society.

Hanson’s research specialization is partly due to family tradition and partly to serendipity, he explains. “I’m a 2nd generation microbiologist, so my dad is a microbiologist. Although what I started out doing was working on methane oxidation, that was what he worked on his lab (…) And then, when I went to graduate school I wanted to distance myself, so I went and started working on phototrophic microbes because they weren’t E. coli, which had been studied for 50, 75 years. (…) I got into sulfur metabolism as the result of an experiment. We knocked out a gene that we thought might be involved in carbon metabolism – the phenotype was sulfur metabolism. And then, 15 years later, that’s where I am.”

Currently, Hanson and his coworkers use a wide suite of techniques, such as molecular microbiology, “-omics” approaches, bioinformatics, and analytical chemistry to understand how bacteria extract energy from chemicals in their environment, for example by oxidizing HS– ions to form elemental sulfur, and then oxidize the elemental sulfur to SO42-. Elemental sulfur is practically insoluble in water, which makes it difficult to access for the microbes. “So it’s really studying very basic aspects of how microbes interact with solid materials. It’s not necessarily that in the next year there’s going to be a product or that there’s going be an application,” says Hanson.

In a decade where public funding for research is decreasing, there is significant pressure on scientists to focus on research questions that have direct applications. But Hanson is skeptical about exclusively application-driven science: “We don’t know what we’re going to discover. Look at penicillin: (…) it was a contaminant that fell into Fleming’s dish. (…) Antibiotics at the outset saved millions of people’s lives. All because of an undirected accident (…). So I think that having some sort of undirected Open Science that leads to serendipitous discoveries, I think that’s a good thing.” Transfer of these ideas is also critical. “It wasn’t Fleming that ended up, you know, commercializing that. It was in large part the federal government (…) that ended up scaling up production to where penicillin would be useful.”

But if scientists like Hanson focus on basic research questions, they are still eager for their findings to ultimately yield applications. And here, Open Science is very helpful, he explains: “Data, open information, open protocols, are all going to be key to getting solutions and getting science out to industries, out to governments, and out to people that might actually be able to translate it into something. Myself, a bench scientist, I’m probably not going to have the right skill set to take a discovery (…) and make it economically feasible. But if my data is out there in open and accessible format, it can actually be used.”

Prof Hanson has been a Frontiers Specialty Chief Editor since 2010. What did originally attract him to Frontiers and what are his ambitions for the section? “The open and collaborative review process is actually what I think attracted me the most. (…) It’s more effort than a traditional review but I think ultimately it actually does improve the science. And that’s really my target for the journal, to actually improve the quality of publications in microbiology that are coming out,” says Hanson.

Further author biography and related research articles available via Loop.

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