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Katrina Edwards: Mistress of the Dark World

PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

Katrina Edwards wears a baby tee and low-cut jeans, and pads around barefoot in her Craftsman-style home in South Pasadena, looking like a tousle-haired model for American Apparel. She's giggling — a warm, infectious sound — while explaining that some aspects of her hot new project were drawn on cocktail napkins. She describes a fun trip when "a few friends" met on Catalina to hammer out their plan.

Her "few friends," it turns out, are top researchers from around the globe, their organization is the Dark Energy Biosphere Institute, and their mission is to understand the otherworldly microcritters who live beneath the ocean floor and, incredibly, comprise nearly half of Earth's biomass.

Edwards, a fun, outdoorsy, charming mother of three girls — her proof includes a well-used camper and a tree swing outside — would never describe herself as one of the smartest people in L.A.

She is that.

Yet she's also the type who often pauses to credit others: "Institute coordinator Rosalynn Lee came up with our logo in a bar," she'll say, or "Steven D'Hondt of the University of Rhode Island is key to this effort."

In college, where she earned her Ph.D. and met her scientist husband, "I had a hard time keeping a focus: geochemistry, mineralogy, microbiology, oceanography, molecular biology. And I guess I'm an ecologist, too."

Edwards is a leader in the cool new realm of geo-microbiology, and the National Science Foundation this year awarded her USC team $25 million to create the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations in Los Angeles.

Its teams are drilling deep, skinny holes in the ocean floor in three locations globally to extract microbes to study how these creatures of the so-called Dark World thrive below the soil horizon, where oxygen is poison and sunlight a mass murderer.

"We in the Light World basically eat carbon and breathe oxygen," Edwards explains. "These microbes can breathe metals. Iron. They can breathe rocks. So you think, 'Wow, I don't know what they're doing. How are they living?' "

She pulls her laptop around to show a video of one of the team's deep-sea experiments being assisted by Alvin, the famous submersible. "What we're doing — looking for these little vampires hidden below the bottom of the ocean — is kind of a crazy idea," she says. "But in L.A., you can take the intellectual, entrepreneurial fever that's out there, and use it in really innovative research."

The Chamber of Commerce might want to talk to Edwards. She calls L.A. a "geobiology mecca" with a "huge, rich, intellectual, scientific community at USC, Caltech, JPL, UCLA, Riverside. I can't think of another concentration like it."

In fact, folks from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are arriving at her place this day to show her a rover they're creating to scan for microbial life. Edwards believes tools for exploring the universe can work in her field.

Katrina Edwards doesn't know where all this leads, just that humans need to go there. "What we're trying to understand is, How does the Dark World relate to the Light World? We make grand assumptions about what is going on in the dark. We may be wrong. Is that okay? I would suggest it's not okay."


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