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Indiana Jones-style professor explores frontiers of microbial science

Slava Epstein wouldn’t be mistaken for Indiana Jones, but a few minutes in his company, examining an Amazonian bow and arrow that reaches to his ceiling tiles, a stone axe from New Guinea, and an Ethiopian coffee maker that sits on his bookshelf, and a visitor is soon scouting the office for the trademark felt fedora.

Epstein is an explorer on many levels.

A world traveler, he emigrated from Russia 20 years ago with a doctoral degree in microbial ecology from the Institute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sciences. Epstein is so committed to his new life here that he started like many immigrants do: painting houses and fences, doing yard work and sealing driveways.

At the same time, he worked as a volunteer then became a postdoc at the University of Massachusetts, always with the goal to explore the hidden depths of microbial research, and the world.

“At the time, it was more about getting out of Russia than anything. I didn’t speak English, so I did what I could to survive,” said Epstein, two days before the 20th anniversary of his emigration.

Today, Epstein is a recently promoted professor heading up several cutting-edge, federally funded research efforts.

“The study of the hidden microbial world is one of the greatest frontiers for discovery,” he said. “Unlike the study of animals and plants, in microbial biodiversity we are just scratching the surface.”

A longtime colleague of biology professor Kim Lewis, Epstein has partnered with him to develop a recently patented method to grow previously uncultivable microorganisms in the lab. His work on the device, called a diffusion chamber, has shown its potential to discover new species and bioactive compounds, including novel antibiotics.

The diffusion chamber is just one of many discoveries Epstein is making in a career that seeks to explore microbial organisms in much the same way he has explored some of the furthest reaches of the world.

•In the Cariaco Basin off the coast of Venezuela, Epstein has headed up a five-year, National Science Foundation backed project to study deep sea microorganisms living without oxygen. Through intensive study of seawater samples, Epstein hopes to shed new light on the types of microorganisms that inhabit this murky, largely unexplored world. “We’re looking at microorganisms that have evolved under conditions reminiscent of primordial Earth,” he said. “There is very little scientific knowledge existing on these species, and we have discovered a score of organisms totally new to science.”

•Epstein is working with two Department of Energy grants to explore new ways of creating bioethanol, an additive in fuel, through the study of novel microorganisms converting cellulose to fuel. His goal is to cultivate a new source of bioethanol from wood chips and leaves, and eschews the controversial use of corn. A second energy department grant funds his research into microbial-based methods to possibly eat through and rid the world of contaminating metals, such as uranium and other heavy metals, he said.

•Another National Institutes of Health grant funds a project to cultivate microorganisms implicated in human disease. There are over 700 species in the human oral cavity, but most of them have previously been impossible to cultivate in the lab. Using the diffusion chamber, Epstein is gaining access to species causing dental disease.

Epstein has just moved into a new office at 305 Mugar, just down the hall from one of his two very busy labs. His second lab is located in Nahant, at the Marine Science Center.

As he selects artifacts from his world travels from his office bookshelf, he picks up a rock plucked from a formation in Iceland, exactly mid-way between North America and Europe. “This rock comes from the geologic rift between two tectonic plates, so you don’t know if it’s American or European,” he said.

When Epstein arrived in New York City from Russia with his wife and two children, he may have felt a little like that rock. Today, he is happily adapted to his new home base, a hub from which he conducts novel research, and sets off on international exploration and adventure.

“Africa is the one area we haven’t seen enough of, yet this is exactly where the human race originated,” Epstein said. “So our next trip, to celebrate our wedding anniversary, will be there—to experience the land of our ancestors!”

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