My name is Lee Prufert-Bebout. I study microbes, with an emphasis on cyanobacterial ecology. I also have a background in geology. My primary interests are in the interplay between the physical environment and the microbes that live in a given environment. I have done a lot of work with cyanobacteria and specialize in culturing species that are "difficult." More recently I've been focusing my work to study how cyanobacteria move in response to environmental conditions and other microbes to create physical 3-dimensional structures such as microbial mats, and various forms of stromatolites.
I've spent a lot of time working back and forth between the areas of microbial ecology and geology. I received a Bachelor's in Biology from Rhodes College in 1981. At that time I was very interested in working in an environmental area and especially in studying the links between microbes and their physical environment (ie., how environments affect microbes and in reverse how microbes affect their environment).
Therefore I pursued a Geology Master's degree, which I received in 1985 from UNC Chapel Hill with a study focusing on diagenesis of iron and manganese in marine sediments. I then worked as a research associate at the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences on a variety of estuarine, near shore and open ocean research sites, with emphasis on nitrogen dynamics and cyanobacterial ecology. It is there that I discovered a real enthusiasm for sleuthing out how and why specific cyanobacterial species are found where they are. When a researcher can discover enough they can figure out how to culture some species that were previously thought to be "unculturable" such as Trichodesmium (IMS 101) which I isolated in 1992.
I then received a stipendium to pursue a Ph.D. in microbial ecology, conducting research at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, in Bremen Germany and receiving her degree from the University of Aarhus, Denmark in 1998. This work focused on how different cyanobacteria in microbial mats were adapted to life at different depths, due to the differences in light color and intensity found at those mat depths. From there I worked on microbes in the muds of salt marshes in Maryland before coming to NASA Ames. Here at Ames I have worked on hot-spring microbes, planetary protection issues, and continued work on stromatolite and microbial mat formation. We are also working on ways that microbial mats can be of applied use both here on Earth and in space.