Earth Sciences Division (ESD) Department of Energy (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)

Earth Sciences Division Staff: Tamas Torok

Tamas Torok

Tamas Torok

Staff Scientist

Ecology Department

 

 

Phone: 510-486-5808

Fax: 510-486-7152

Email: ttorok@lbl.gov

Biographical Summary

Serendipity in the life of a scientist is at least as important as preparation and expertise. I became a microbiologist by serendipity: my admission advisor recommended it when I was dreaming about becoming a synthetic organic chemist. I came to the US due to serendipity: a researcher happened to read my papers on yeasts in 1988 and invited me to join his project. And I became an LBNL employee due to serendipity because I came upon a small ad in the SF Chronicle at a time when I wanted to learn more about sequencing and the human genome project.

Carl Woese wrote in 2002: “Where there is life, there are microbes.” I have been true to this statement and have tremendously enjoyed my life as a microbiologist for almost four decades. Serendipity allowed me to work in extreme environments where Mother Nature was at its best. I have been privileged and had wonderful and supportive mentors my entire career, who made me what I am. I have been honored and taught and mentored next generation microbiologists and immunologists for over three decades. And I have worked with outstanding scientists in the East and the West, some of who became lifelong friends. Who can wish for anything more?

Research Expertise

The main research interest of the laboratory is microbial diversity in extreme environments. We apply a polyphasic approach, i.e., a complementary set of microbial physiology, chemical taxonomy, and non-culture-based methods to assess and monitor microbial communities. While we use pattern recognition techniques, such as electrophoretic karyotyping and signature lipid biomarker analysis, as well as genomic sequencing to survey and characterize selected microbial ecosystems, we also very much rely on developing new isolation and cultivation techniques. Newly isolated microorganisms are then screened in collaboration with industrial partners for novel traits and natural products.

Over the past 14 years, the laboratory has participated in the US DOE/NNSA Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (GIPP) program. The projects opened new, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for environmental sample collection. The “Search for Ancient Microorganisms in Lake Baikal” project targeted the microbial diversity present in and around Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest continental lake in the world in south central Siberia. We collected water and soil samples from the Lake and surrounding hot springs, and participated in two expeditions of the international Baikal Drilling Project (BDRP; www.geol.sc.edu/SIL/bdp.htm). Over 2,200 strains were isolated, preserved, and identified based on biochemical tests, whole-cell fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) analysis, genomic DNA fingerprinting, electron microscopic cell morphology and fine structure, and restriction enzyme profiles.

In other projects, such as the “Microbially Derived Agricultural Crop Protection Products”, “Screening of Botanical and Microbial Species Collected within the Territory of the Former Soviet Union for Pharmaceutical and Agrochemical Activities”, and “Microbial Diversity for Novel Biotechnology Applications” we developed multi-year programs for systematic seasonal collection of the microbial diversity in selected extreme environments in Chernobyl, Ukraine, the Siberian permafrost, on the Kamchatka peninsula, the Caucasus Mountain and the high salinity soils in Georgia, and the deserts of Uzbekistan. We leveraged our microbial physiology expertise and proprietary fermentation methods and benefited from high-throughput assays of the industrial partners (DuPont, Diversa, and Pioneer-HiBred International) to screen thousands of microbialorganisms, plant extracts, and filamentous fungi collected. Novel microbial natural products with agricultural and biomedical applications were discovered. One WfO collaboration is still ongoing; dozens of antifungal peptides and insecticidal molecules have been patented, and the transgenic plants of major crop plants generated in the program now express extremophilic microbial sequences. One of our newest research projects --  a collaboration with institutes in Ukraine and Pioneer-HiBred International -- is focusing on “Novel Enabling Technologies for Gene Isolation and Transfer” in major crop plants.

Many other projects are under development in the area of probiotics and their application in autoimmune diseases of the GI system, food- and water-borne pathogens monitoring, and novel anti-TB, -fungal, and –viral drug design. Of the many spin-off ideas that have resulted from past and current projects, let’s only mention a few: (1) a NATO Collaborative Linkage Grant provided seed money for a feasibility study to introduce sequences from hyperthermophilic microorganisms into legumes for post-harvest modification through heat activation of the enzymes during storage. (2) In Tajikistan, with the support of the International Science andTechnology Center (ISTC), we investigated cattle graves, outbreaks, and clinical samples to GIS-map the sites and genetically characterize the circulating Bacillus anthracis strains. (3) In a Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF)-funded project, we joined forces with institutes in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and established a network of microbial culture collections as biotechnology resources. (5) In Azerbaijan, a collaborative investigation funded by CRDF and the National Academy of Sciences collected petroleum hydrocarbon degrading and biosurfactants expressing microorganisms to cleanup oil contaminated environments. (6) With colleagues in Japan and Georgia, we genetically engineered and screened fungi that produce high efficiency lignocellulolytic enzymes for biomass-to-biofuels applications.

Education

  • 1984 - M.S. (2nd) in Bioengineering, Technical University, Budapest, Hungary
  • 1982 - Ph.D. in Microbiology, University of Szeged, Hungary
  • 1971 - M.S. in Food Sciences, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany
  • 1969 - B.S. in Food Sciences, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

Professional Experience

  • 2010 - present     Staff scientist, Earth Sciences Division, Ecology Department, LawrenceBerkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)
  • 1997 -2010          Staff scientist, Life Sciences Division, LBNL
  • 1995 -1997          Scientist, Life Sciences Division, LBNL
  • 1992 - 1995         Senior research associate, Life Sciences Division, LBN
  • 1988 - 1992         Visiting scientist, USDA Western Regional Research Center, Albany, CA
  • 1974 - 1988         Senior staff scientist, Department of Microbiology, Corvinus University, Budapest, Hungary
  • 1971 - 1974         Microbiologist, Center for Food Control and Analysis, Budapest, Hungary

Awards, Memberships, and Volunteering

  • “Outstanding Performance Award” -  LBNL (2010)
  • “Excellence in Technology Transfer Award” -  LBNL (2007)
  • “Outstanding Mentor Award” -  US Department of Energy (2004)“
  • Outstanding Performance Award” -  LBNL (1996)
  • American Society for Microbiology
  • Volunteer for Citizens Development Corps (CDC) [assignment in Kosovo in 2002].

Synergistic Activities

  • 1995 – 2000 Associate Administrator, Center for Environmental Biotechnology, LBNL 
  • 1996 – present Member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology; reviewer for the journals Enzyme and Microbial Technology, Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry, Aerobiology, Astrobiology, and the ISME Journal  
  • 1997 -present Contributed to or led a variety of projects with regard to microbialdiversity, including fate and transport of DNAPLs in fractured rocks; ancient microorganisms isolated from amber; the use of spore protein signature information forthe detection of Bacillus anthracis; high-throughput screening of plant and microbial extracts for a new class of antibiotics; development of methods for DNA extraction of bacterial endospores; isolation of unique microorganisms and characterization of extremophilic microbial communities from Lake Baikal and Kamchatka in Siberia, Russia, the Caucasus region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia); extremely high radiation surviving filamentous fungi from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine; B. anthracis genotyping in Tajikistan; ultrahigh-throughput genotyping of Salmonella typhi,Yersinia pestis and Francisella tularensis; microbial diversity-based novel crop protectionand other biotech products; the DOE-GTL project on protein complexes characterization(PCAP); food safety and probiotics and human health;Advised undergraduate students (Biotech Partners [formerly Berkeley Biotechnology Education, Inc.] co-op students, and UC Berkeley work-study students) and graduate students (CSU East Bay and Jackson State University, MS), and mentored students andexchange faculty underrepresented in science (Bioremediation Education, Science, andTechnology program [DoD], Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program[DOE], Faculty and Student Training program [DOE], and Mickey Leland Fellowprogram [DOE])
  • 2000 – present Part-time instructor of microbiology and immunology (California State University East Bay, Hayward, CA); adjunct faculty at Cañada College in Redwood City,CA  
  • 2000 – 2009 Chair, Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) at LBNL 
  • 2005 – present Microbiology expert of the IBC at Los Alamos National Laboratory andUSDA Western Regional Research Center
  • 2009 – present  Program manager for DOE’s Global Initiatives for ProliferationPrevention (GIPP) program at Berkeley Lab; chair for the GIPP program chem/bioreview panel; US expert representative Steering Committee member for three International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) Targeted Initiatives

Collaborators

Afrikian, E. (SMDC, Yerevan, Armenia);Al-Zubaidi, I.S. (Center for Food Safety, Baghdad, Iraq); Allaith, A. (University of Bahrein); Andersen, G.L. (LBNL); Arkin, A. (LBNL); Auer, M. (LBNL); Biggin, M. (LBNL); Boundy-Mills, K. (UC Davis, CA); Britton, L. (UT at Austin, TX); Brodie, E. (LBNL); Cristoffersen, L. (E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation); Davis, A. (Jackson State University, MS); Dixon, B. (CSU East Bay.CA); Dmitrieva, V. (CERBRD, Pushchino, Russia); Drmanac, R. (Callida Genomics, Sunnyvale, CA); Green, B. (Diversa Corporation); Hazen, T. (LBNL); Herrmann, R. (DuPont); Hugenholtz, P. (LBNL); Hugh-Jones, M. (Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA); Hunter-Cevera, J. (RTI International, Triangle Park, NC); Imnadze, P. (NCDC, Tbilisi, Georgia); Ismaylov, N. (IM, Baku, Azerbaijan); Karpov, G. (Institute of Seismology and Volcanology FEB RAS, Russia); Kvesitadze, G. (Durmishidze Institute, Tbilisi, Georgia); Kuchuk, M. (ICBGE, Kiev, Ukraine); Lorevit, V. (Metchnikov Institute of Virology, Odessa, Ukraine); Lysov, Y. (Engelhardt Institute, Moscow, Russia); Mathur, E. (Synthetic Genomics, CA); Meiss, S. (California University of Pennsylvania, PA); Mills, D. (UC Davis, CA); Nasyrova, F. (Institute of Plant Physiology and Genetics, Dushanbe, Tajikistan); Pepoyan, A. (Institute of Biochemistry, Yerevan, Armenia); Peter, G. (University of Budapest, Hungary); Presnail, J. (DuPont); Repin, V. (VECTOR, Koltsovo, Russia); Robbs, F. (UMBI, Baltimor, MD); Reysenbach, A.L. (Portland State University, OR); Satorov, S. (CIFMD, Dushanbe, Tajikistan); Short, J. (E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation ); Stetter, K. (University of Regensburg, Germany); Stokowski, R. (Perlegen Scientific, CA); Tashpulatov, J. (IM, Tashkent, Uzbekistan); Taylor, J. (UC Berkeley, CA); Tornai, J. (University of Budapest, Hungary); Venkateswaran, K. (JPL, Pasadena, CA); Wiegel, J. (University of Georgia, Athens, GA); Yalpani,. N. (Pioneer Hi-Bred); Young, M. (Montana State University, Bozeman, MT); Zhdanova, N. (IMV, Kiev, Ukraine.