“I am fascinated by the fact that the world is basically run by little invisible creatures that most people completely ignore,” says Rima Franklin, Ph.D., associate professor of microbial ecology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Department of Biology. Franklin studies microbes — microscopic, usually single-celled organisms that are the oldest form of life.
“These microbes make Earth habitable for us by purifying water, decomposing wastes, recycling nutrients and even making most of the oxygen we breathe,” she says. “Nearly everyone recognizes that microbes are key to human health, but few people appreciate how essential microorganisms are for maintaining the health of the planet.”
Her specific research focuses on bacteria, and at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, Franklin and her students collect soil and water samples to study their rates of biogeochemical cycling or to determine DNA sequences, from which they can gain valuable insights into these microbes’ biology and their roles in environmental ecosystems.
“Most microbes don’t like to grow in the lab, so it’s only since the DNA sequencing technology became common (around 25 years ago) that we have come to fully understand the complexity and diversity of microbial communities,” she says.
Franklin is interested in how communities of microbes develop and function in the environment, and what factors influence their behavior and stability. How Earth’s ecosystems respond to environmental change or disruption will be determined by how microbes respond to them, she says.
Land managers and government officials can apply the knowledge gained in her lab to issues of environmental concern. They can use her research into nitrogen pollution, for example, to understand what will lead to an algal bloom, which can threaten water quality. “Taking measurements and correlating them with ecosystem-level changes helps us predict what happens at the macro level,” she says.
She’s challenged daily by trying to understand something very complex and dynamic. “We’re putting together pieces of a very ornate puzzle and sometimes it seems impossible that a ‘big picture’ will emerge,” she says. “But on good days, this challenge is part of what makes the topic so interesting — especially when I keep in mind how important these microbial communities are to maintaining a healthy ecosystem.”
Franklin grew up in rural West Virginia, the daughter of “back-to-the-land hippies” who intentionally raised her very close to nature. “Whenever my family would go on walk, I’d come back with a collection of moss I’d found on the forest floor or a bucket of salamanders I’d found in a nearby stream,” she says. “When I started college, I knew that I would major in science.” She excelled in biology and chemistry and followed those passions into the field of microbiology.
It’s commonly estimated that scientists have studied less than 1 percent of the microbial species on Earth. “This is pretty remarkable when you also consider that a single teaspoon of garden soil contains more than a billion bacteria comprising thousands of species,” Franklin says. “Researchers are constantly finding new species that do new chemical reactions we thought were impossible, and this is part of what I find exciting about the field.”