Kenneth Nealson

Professor Emeritus of Earth Sciences
Email Office SHS 560 Office Phone (213) 821-2271

Research & Practice Areas

Microbial physiology and genomics; Environmental microbiology; Metagenomics of natural populations; Microbial Fuel Cells


  • Ph.D. Microbiology, University of Chicago, 1/1969
  • B.S. Biochemistry, University of Chicago, 1/1965
    • Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University, 10/1969-10/1972
  • Tenure Track Appointments

    • Wrigley Professor of Geobiology, University of Southern California, 10/01/2001 –
    • Senior Scientist, Professor, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, 10/01/1997 – 10/01/2001
    • Distinguished Professor, Center Great Lakes Studies, University of Wisconsin, 10/01/1985 – 10/01/1997
    • Professor, Scripps Inst. Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, 10/01/1973 – 10/01/1985
  • Summary Statement of Research Interests


    Biogeochemistry of Manganese and Iron: For several years we have been studying the laboratory and field activities of bacteria that oxidize and reduce metals, primarily manganese and iron. Past studies involved the development of methods to measure metal oxidation rates in the field, and the characterization of Mn and Fe oxidizing bacteria from a variety of marine and freshwater environments.
    Recent studies have involved the development of methods to measure the reduction of Mn and iron oxides by bacteria, and the relationship of these processes to other anaerobic processes in sediments. During this work, we described for the first time bacteria that grow anaerobically by coupling the oxidation of carbon to the reduction of iron and manganese oxides. These bacteria represent a new and novel metabolic group, which have been shown to couple their metabolism of metals to the extrusion of protons. They will be a major focal point of study for the near future.
    Present work with these organisms involves the molecular studies of their metal metabolism, and the relationship of this metabolism to other metabolic pathways within the metal reducing bacterium Shewanella putrefaciens. The studies range all the way from ecological studies of the distribution and activity of S. putrefaciens, to biochemical studies of the enzymes involved in reductive processes, to comparative gene studies of reductases involved in anaerobic metabolism.

    Development of Methods for Life Detection: During my time at JPL, I directed a group in the general area of Astrobiology. This group was composed of about 20 people, and had as its goal the development of search strategies for life detection, the development and testing of technologies to test these strategies in the laboratory or at other laboratories where the technologies exist, and eventually the use of these approaches and techniques for the search for life, both on Earth, in samples returned to Earth, and in situ on Mars and other sites off of our planet. This group and the work was decidedly interdisciplinary, including chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers, as well as biologists, and involved a strong connection with national labs, such as the synchrotron facilities at Argonne and Berkeley, and with the group at Oak Ridge.

    Extreme environments on Earth: Recently, our laboratory has begun the investigation of extreme environments on Earth, utilizing the methods that we have been developing for life detection. These include the investigation of Mono Lake, CA. (high pH and salinity), deep subsurface environments (deep sea drilling cores), cold environments like the Antarctic and Siberian permafrost, and deserts, both hot and cold. One site of great interest is that of the Cedars in northern California, a site at which the pH reaches 12 and above, and the Eh is routinely minus 500 mV and lower.

    Geology of Mars, and the possibility of past or present life on Mars: I am presently involved with the Odyssey Mission to Mars, being a PI of the Themis imaging team. This work involves several students and post-docs in the lab, and focuses on the search for water and specific mineral types on the surface of Mars. It focuses on the properties of Mars that might be consistent with them being habitats for past life, and thus good sites to look for the evidence of past or even extant life when future Mars missions are flown.

    Microbial Fuel Cells for energy and education: Our lab has been working on the development and testing of microbial fuel cells (MFCs), with three goals in mind. First, to utilize these systems as teaching tools for microbial physiology and ecology; second, to improve power consumption to the point that useful power can be gained from the conversion of organic biomass; and, third, to engineer the systems for the processing of municipal and industrial waste. The latter would have the goal of both supplying energy and reducing the amount of sludge output from waste treatment plants via more efficient cycling of the waste during MFC operation.

    Research Specialties

    Microbial physiology and genomics; Environmental microbiology; Metagenomics of natural populations; Microbial Fuel Cells

    Detailed Statement of Research Interests

    Professor Nealson’s current work focuses on many aspects of bacteria in the group Shewanella. This ranges from comparative genomics of this group (with a goal of using a systems biology approach to understand the microbes), to identifying the genes and proteins involved in metal reduction and electricity production by these bacteria. In addition, the work includes development of methods for identifying early stress in metallic materials, utilizing bacteria to sense and respond to the stress. This approach is broadened by efforts to use shotgun sequencing approaches to identify the genetic components of marine populations, and understand the microbiology of the ocean using these metagenomic approaches.

  • Encyclopedia Article

    • Nealson, K. H., Berelson, W. (2009). Sediment habitats, including watery. (Schechter, M., Ed.).350-360. Oxford: Encyclopedia of MicrobiologyOxford:Elsevier.

    Journal Article

    • Biffinger, J., Ribbens, M., Ringeisen, B., Pietron, J., Finkel, S., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Characterization of electrochemically active bacteria utilizing a high-throughput voltage-based screening assay. Biotechnol Bioeng. Vol. 102 (22008/09/04), pp. 436-44.
    • Finzi-Hart, J. A., Pett-Ridge, J., Weber, P. K., Popa, R., Fallon, S. J., Gunderson, T., Hutcheon, I. D., Nealson, K. H., Capone, D. G. (2009). Fixation and fate of C and N in the cyanobacterium Trichodesmium using nanometer-scale secondary ion mass spectrometry. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Vol. 106 (152009/04/01), pp. 6345-50.
    • Gao, H., Yang, Z. K., Barua, S., Reed, S. B., Romine, M. F., Nealson, K. H., Fredrickson, J. K., Tiedje, J. M., Zhou, J. (2009). Reduction of nitrate in Shewanella oneidensis depends on atypical NAP and NRF systems with NapB as a preferred electron transport protein from CymA to NapA. ISME J. Vol. 3 (82009/04/24), pp. 966-76.
    • Harris, H. W., El-Naggar, M. Y., Bretschger, O., Ward, M. J., Romine, M. F., Obraztsova, A. Y., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Electrokinesis is a microbial behavior that requires extracellular electron transport. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. (2009/12/19)
    • He, Z., Kan, J., Mansfeld, F., Angenent, L. T., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Self-sustained phototrophic microbial fuel cells based on the synergistic cooperation between photosynthetic microorganisms and heterotrophic bacteria. Environ Sci Technol. Vol. 43 (52009/04/09), pp. 1648-54.
    • He, Z., Kan, J., Wang, Y., Huang, Y., Mansfeld, F., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Electricity production coupled to ammonium in a microbial fuel cell. Environ Sci Technol. Vol. 43 (92009/06/19), pp. 3391-7.
    • Jang, J. K., Chang, I. S., Hwang, H. Y., Choo, Y. F., Lee, J., Cho, K. S., Kim, B. H., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Electricity generation coupled to oxidation of propionate in a microbial fuel cell. Biotechnol Lett. (2009/09/05)
    • Karpinets, T. V., Obraztsova, A. Y., Wang, Y., Schmoyer, D. D., Kora, G. H., Park, B. H., Serres, M. H., Romine, M. F., Land, M. L., Kothe, T. B., Fredrickson, J. K., Nealson, K. H., Uberbacher, E. C. (2009). Conserved synteny at the protein family level reveals genes underlying Shewanella species’ cold tolerance and predicts their novel phenotypes. Funct Integr Genomics. (2009/10/06)
    • Konstantinidis, K. T., Serres, M. H., Romine, M. F., Rodrigues, J. L., Auchtung, J., McCue, L. A., Lipton, M. S., Obraztsova, A., Giometti, C. S., Nealson, K. H., Fredrickson, J. K., Tiedje, J. M. (2009). Comparative systems biology across an evolutionary gradient within the Shewanella genus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Vol. 106 (372009/10/07), pp. 15909-14.
    • Namsaraev, Z., Akimov, V., Tsapin, A., Barinova, E., Nealson, K. H., Gorlenko, V. (2009). Marinospirillum celere sp. nov., a novel haloalkaliphilic, helical bacterium isolated from Mono Lake. Int J Syst Evol Microbiol. Vol. 59 (Pt 92009/07/22), pp. 2329-32.
    • Nealson, K. H. (2009). Taking the concept to the limit: uncultivable bacteria and astrobiology. Microbiol. Monographs. Vol. 10, pp. 195-204.
    • Popa, R., Fang, W., Nealson, K. H., Souza-Egipsy, V., Berquo, T. S., Benerjee, S. K., Penn, L. R. (2009). Effect of oxidative stress on the growth of magnetic particles in Magnetospirillum magneticum. Int Microbiol. Vol. 12 (12009/05/15), pp. 49-57.
    • Prakash, G., Viva, F., Bretschger, O., Yang, B., El-Naggar, M., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Inoculation procedures and characterization of membrane electrode assemblies for microbial fuel cells. J. Power Sources. Vol. (in press)
    • Schubbe, S., Williams, T. J., Xie, G., Kiss, H. E., Brettin, T. S., Martinez, D., Ross, C. A., Schuler, D., Cox, B. L., Nealson, K. H., Bazylinski, D. A. (2009). Complete genome sequence of the chemolithoautotrophic marine magnetotactic coccus strain MC-1. Appl Environ Microbiol. Vol. 75 (142009/05/26), pp. 4835-52.
    • Waters, M. S., El-Naggar, M. Y., Hsu, L., Sturm, C. A., Luttge, A., Udwadia, F. E., Cvitkovitch, D. G., Goodman, S. D., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Simultaneous interferometric measurement of corrosive or demineralizing bacteria and their mineral interfaces. Appl Environ Microbiol. Vol. 75 (52009/01/07), pp. 1445-9.
    • Waters, M. S., Salas, E. C., Goodman, S. D., Udwadia, F. E., Nealson, K. H. (2009). Early detection of oxidized surfaces using Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 as a tool. Biofouling. Vol. 25 (22009/01/24), pp. 163-72.
    • Waters, M. S., Sturm, C. A., El-Naggar, M. Y., Udwadia, F. E., Cvitkovitch, D. G., Goodman, S. D., Nealson, K. H. (2008). In search of the microbe/mineral interface: quantitative analysis of bacteria on metal surface using vertical scanning Interferometry. Geomicrobio. J.. Vol. 6, pp. 254 – 262.
    • Fredrickson, J. K., Romine, M. F., Beliaev, A. S., Auchtung, J. M., Driscoll, M. E., Gardner, T. S., Nealson, K. H., Osterman, A. L., Pinchuk, G., Reed, J. L., Rodionov, D. O., Rodrigues, J. L., Saffarini, D. A., Serres, M. H., Spormann, A. M., Zhulin, I. G., Tiedje, J. M. (2008). Towards Environmental Systems Biology of Shewanella. Nature Rev. Microbiol.. Vol. 6, pp. 592 – 603.
    • El-Naggar, M., Gorby, Y. A., Xia, W., Nealson, K. H. (2008). The Molecular Density of States in Bacterial Nanowires. Biophys. J.. Vol. 95, pp. 10 – 12.
    • Borg, L. E., DesMarais, D. J., Beatty, D. W., Aharonson, O., Benner, S. A., Bogard, D. D., Bridges, J. C., Rudney, C. J., Calvin, W. M., Clark, B. C., Eigenbrode, J. L., Grady, M. M., Head, J. W., Hemming, S. R., Hinners, N. W., Hipkin, V., MacPherson, G. J., Marinangeli, L., McLennan, S. M., McSween, H. Y., Moersch, J. E., Nealson, K. H., Pratt, L. M., Righter, K., Ruff, S. W., Shearer, C. K., Steele, A., Sumner, D. Y., Symes, S. J., Vago, J. L., Westall, F. (2008). Science priorities for Mars sample return. Astrobiology. Vol. 8, pp. 489 – 536.
    • Bhartia, R., Hug, W., Nealson, K. H. (2008). Classification of organic and biological materials with deep UV excitation. Appl. Spectroscopy. Vol. 62, pp. 1070 – 1077.
    • Schelble, R., Hall, J., Steele, A., Nealson, K. H. (2008). . DNA perseverance of microorganisms exposed to silica: an experimental study. Geobiology. Vol. 6, pp. 503 – 511.
    • Kus, E., Nealson, K. H., Mansfeld, F. (2008). The bacterial battery and the effect of different exposure conditions on biofilm properties. Electrochem. Acta. Vol. 54, pp. 47 – 52.
    • Manohar, A. K., Bretschger, O., Nealson, K. H., Mansfeld, F. (2008). The Use of Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy (EIS) in the Evaluation of the Electrochemical Properties of a Microbial Fuel Cell. Bioelectrochemistry. Vol. 72, pp. 149 – 159.
    • Kus, E., Nealson, K. H., Mansfeld, F. (2008). The effect of different exposure conditions on biofilm/copper properties. Corrosion Science. Corrosion Science. Vol. 49, pp. 3421 – 3427.
    • Manohar, A. K., Bretschger, O., Nealson, K. H., Mansfeld, F. (2008). The polarization behavior of the anode in a microbial fuel cell. Electrochem. Acta. pp. 3508 – 3515.
    • Nealson, K. H. (2008). A Korarchaeote yields to genome sequencing. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.. Vol. 105, pp. 8805 -8806.
    • Pinchuk, G. E., Ammons, C., Culley, S., Li, W., McLean, J. S., Romine, M. F., Nealson, K. H., Fredrickson, J. K., Beliaev, A. (2008). Utilization of DNA as a sole source of phosphorus, carbon, and energy by Shewanella spp.: ecological and physiological implications for dissimilatory metal reduction. Appl. Environm. Microbiol.. Vol. 74, pp. 1198 – 1208.
    • USC Raubenheimer Outstanding Senior Faculty Award, Teaching, Research, and Service, 2016/11/15
    • American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, Fellow, 2013/12/03
    • Fellow (or Equivalent) of National Society in Discipline, Elected Fellow of American Geophysical Union, 2012
    • USC Endowed Chair, Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies, 2016/08/16-2019/05/15
    • USC Endowed Chair, Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies, 2001/09/01-2016/08/15
    • D.C. White Award for Excellence in Research and Mentoring, 2009-2010
    • Selman Waksman Outstanding Educator Award, Spring 2004
    • Proctor and Gamble Medal in Environmental Microbiology, 2003/05
    • Distinguished Visiting Researcher Award presented by Joint Oceanographic Institution, 1996
    • Fellow (or Equivalent) of National Society in Discipline, American Academy of Microbiology, 1994
    • Guggenheim Fellowship Recipient, 1982
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