The Marlow Lab at Boston University explores the world of microbes

By Suryatapa Chakraborty

Boston University News Service

It’s not every day you come across a scientist who designs the interior of his own office. 

Jeffrey Marlow is a researcher, but more importantly a mentor and a friend to his students and colleagues. The assistant professor of biology at Boston University revealed the one word he would use to describe himself: curious.

Joseph Larkin, an assistant professor at Boston University’s department of biology and a colleague of Marlow’s, said that Marlow reminds him of the protagonist in the book “In Ascension” – a science-fiction novel about a microbiologist who goes on a space mission.

“The number of parallels between the protagonist and Jeff is crazy,” said Larkin. 

Larkin says that the protagonist’s work, interests and her connection to space reminds him of Marlow. “Jeff’s life and work is interesting enough for a work of fiction to be written about it,” said Larkin. 

Marlow’s research focuses on studying how microbes communicate with each other and their environment within their natural habitats. The Marlow Lab is in the university’s Biology Research Building and is home to undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers who have Marlow as a guide in their research journey. 

Paul Rousteau, a postdoctoral researcher at the Marlow Lab, studies the microbes in salt marshes on Cape Cod. According to Marlow, they have “an enormous amount of microbial diversity within a small volume.” Marlow said the purpose of this research is to understand how carbon as an element moves in the salt marsh ecosystem through the microbes.

He said figuring out where carbon is going in the environment and how fast that process can be is very important, as changes in the carbon content in the atmosphere can have drastic effects on the environment. 

“Jeff is very human in his way of mentoring everybody,” said Rousteau, who met Marlow in Vienna in 2019 while completing his Ph.D. 

“It is impossible to fully describe someone as multifaceted as Jeff in one sentence,” said Peter Schroedl, a Ph.D. student working at the Marlow Lab. “Phrases like renaissance man come to mind.”

Schroedl met Marlow when Schroedl was working on a NASA exobiology grant, which is a program that funds research related to understanding the origin and evolution of life, at the University of Minnesota in 2018. 

Larkin said Marlow’s work is about going straight into the environment, which is fascinating, but also pointed out that the researcher has very little control over the system. 

Marlow went to space camp in elementary school and said he figured out in middle school that he wanted to be a scientist. “I knew I wanted to learn new things about the world,” Marlow said. 

He said he was fascinated by the idea of life beyond earth and that is what ultimately made him think about microbial ecology, which is the interaction of microorganisms with each other and their environment.

“The challenge with it is that astrobiology in a lot of ways is a theoretical science, because we don’t have many samples from elsewhere in the solar system,” Marlow said.

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