Clean Energy


Systems Biology

Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansisORNL research is examining life across scales, from the genome to the environment, to find biological solutions for sustainable energy sources and a cleaner world. Underpinning such solutions is a better understanding of complex biological systems and their intricate relationships with the environment. To achieve this understanding, ORNL brings together multidisciplinary expertise and special facilities in genomics, computational biology, plant sciences, microbiology, microbial ecology, biophysics, and structural biology. This collective expertise includes collaborations within and outside ORNL and focuses on scientific challenges in biology for Department of Energy (DOE) missions in energy and environment.

Continuing a 50-year legacy that includes 26 R&D 100 awards, ORNL biology and environmental programs are supported by other federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and Environmental Protection Agency, along with several industrial partners. Current systems biology projects comprise the following integrated and complementary research areas.

Research areas

  • Bioenergy — Includes fundamental and applied research projects focused on developing plant feedstocks optimized for biofuel production and improving microbial processes for deconstructing and producing biofuels from biomass.
  • Biological Interfaces Examines the spatial relationships, physical connections, chemical exchanges, and interactions that facilitate the flow of information and materials between cells.
  • Computational Biology and KBase —Focuses on research and development of advanced computational tools and resources for processing, analyzing, visualizing, and integrating complex biological data.
  • Environmental Biology — Investigates the biological mechanisms that influence carbon cycling and sequestration and the behavior of contaminants in the environment.
  • Genomic Sciences — Uses genomics-based approaches and advanced characterization and computational technologies to predictively understand the principles controlling plant and microbial systems important to bioenergy and environmental applications.
  • Structural Biology — Leverages ORNL’s neutron scattering and high-performance computing capabilities to understand the structure and function of biological systems at the atomic, molecular, and cellular levels.
  • Collaborative University Research — Includes joint programs with the University of Tennessee and other institutions that enrich the research enterprise of both ORNL and its collaborators while training the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists.

Additional systems biology resources

Recent news releases

1-11 of 11 Results

BESC, Mascoma develop revolutionary microbe for biofuel production
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., June 3, 2015 – Biofuels pioneer Mascoma LLC and the Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center have developed a revolutionary strain of yeast that could help significantly accelerate the development of biofuels from nonfood plant matter.

ORNL researchers contribute to major bioenergy and sustainability report
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (April 16, 2015) – A major multinational report on bioenergy and sustainability released Tuesday concludes the sustainable production of bioenergy can be an important tool for addressing climate change.

New ORNL, N.C. State, LanzaTech DNA dataset is potent, accessible tool
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., April 14, 2015 – Scientists focused on producing biofuels more efficiently have a new powerful dataset to help them study the DNA of microbes that fuel bioconversion and other processes.

Simpson named new JIBS director
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Oct. 21, 2014 – Dr. Michael Simpson, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Corporate Fellow and Group Leader of the Nanofabrication Research Laboratory Group in the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS) at ORNL, has been appointed the next director of the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Biological Sciences (JIBS). This appointment is in addition to his role at CNMS.

Vertimass licenses ORNL biofuel-to-hydrocarbon conversion technology
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., March 6, 2014 — Vertimass LLC, a California-based start-up company, has licensed an Oak Ridge National Laboratory technology that directly converts ethanol into a hydrocarbon blend-stock for use in transportation fuels.

Bioenergy expert Ragauskas named UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Feb. 21, 2014 — Arthur Ragauskas, an authority in bioenergy, has been named a University of Tennessee–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair.

ORNL's Keller, Babu, Hazen elected AAAS fellows
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 25, 2013 -- The associate laboratory director for Energy and Environmental Sciences (EES) at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and two University of Tennessee-ORNL Governor’s Chair researchers are among the newly elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Tree roots and their microbial partners may provide answers to productivity
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 13, 2013 – The ability to make plants grow stronger and more quickly is a key goal in the effort to develop better biofuels and better understand plant efficiency. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have gone straight to the roots to understand microbes that may play a role in reaching that goal.

ORNL study uses neutron scattering, supercomputing to demystify forces at play in biofuel production
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 13, 2013 — Researchers studying more effective ways to convert woody plant matter into biofuels at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have identified fundamental forces that change plant structures during pretreatment processes used in the production of bioenergy.

Toxic methylmercury-producing microbes more widespread than realized
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Sept. 12, 2013 — Microbes that live in rice paddies, northern peat bogs and other previously unexpected environments are among the bacteria that can generate highly toxic methylmercury, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have learned.

ORNL research reveals new challenges for mercury cleanup
OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Aug. 5, 2013 — More forms of mercury can be converted to deadly methylmercury than previously thought, according to a study published Sunday in Nature Geoscience. The discovery provides scientists with another piece of the mercury puzzle, bringing them one step closer to understanding the challenges associated with mercury cleanup.


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