|A Talk with Microbe Hunter Karl Stetter|
By Kate Ruder
Posted: October 1, 2004
At 63 years-old, Stetter says he isn’t about to slow down. Although he recently retired from the University of Regensburg in Germany, Stetter will be starting a new laboratory at Diversa, California-based biotech, of which he is a cofounder.
Stetter was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s International Conference on Extremophiles, where he sat down to talk with GNN.
GNN: How did you become interested in studying extremophiles?
Stetter: I came from the molecular side of biology. I have enjoyed studying small organisms since my earliest days as a child. My parents gave me a little microscope so I first looked at bacteria very early in my life. This was my background.
With extremophiles, I thought that maybe there could be other organisms around, you know that grow at high temperatures.
Either you love the environment where these organisms live with the volcanoes and the steam and the smell of sulfur, or you hate it. There are only two ways. And I fell in love with the volcanoes and this environment, and that’s how it started.
GNN: How do you find new organisms?
Stetter: You have to have unusual ideas to find unusual organisms.
But it’s also important to do work in the lab. I’m not a scientific traveling agency. It’s important to get these organisms out of their environment and to characterize them in the laboratory.
GNN: What’s it like to be at a conference with so many people who study extremophiles?
Stetter: For me it’s great fun, and it’s overwhelming to see how many people are working on my organisms. I founded a facility in Regensburg, Germany, where we can grow kilograms of these guys, and I supply much of the scientific world with these microbes.
GNN: Have there been difficulties?
Stetter: I had to develop a totally new cultivation facility because the normal fermentors—vats that store microbes and keep them alive—did not work at such high temperatures. I asked a very famous company in Europe to make a fermenter for a thermophile, and now we can grow the bugs, which is most important. And a result the DNA is in many laboratories.
GNN: What are you interested in studying today?
Stetter: I am interested in understanding which primitive organisms are still around on Earth. What are the most primitive life forms? What are the limits to life?
I am looking for the upper temperature limits of life. This is one of my targets: the deep branches in the tree of life.
GNN: What about life in Mars?
I would love to sample on Mars for organisms, but I may not be able to in my lifetime. Perhaps there are robots that could bring some things back.
GNN: How about your newest venture at Diversa?
On October 11, I’ll go to Diversa for three months and set up a research lab, where I will work on hyperthermophiles. I would like to set up a center of studies on hyperthermophiles at Diversa.