Nov. 24, 2020

Marc Strous named Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada

Microbial ecologist in Faculty of Science joins elite class recognized for exceptional achievements

“When people say ‘That will never work,’ I know I’m on the right track,” says microbial ecologist Dr. Marc Strous, PhD, reflecting on his research and being named to the Royal Society of Canada this year. Strous is being recognized for his numerous groundbreaking contributions to microbial ecology, biogeochemistry, and environmental biotechnology.

Each year, the society elects new fellows — there are only 2,334 fellows across Canada to date — who have made exceptional achievements in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. The society’s mandate is to recognize excellence and mobilize its membership to make significant and substantial contributions to knowledge, understanding, and insight — all while engaging with society to help inspire others.

While he’s still absorbing the magnitude of this honour, Strous is quick to recognize the community around him that helped to make it possible. “It’s a feeling of gratitude,” he says.

As a teenager, Strous didn't envision becoming an international leader and innovator in biochemistry and microbial symbiosis. “My father was a professor of biochemistry,” he says. “And so I chose chemical engineering, because of course I wanted to be different.”

But a lifelong interest in the environment steered him toward doctoral research on wastewater treatment and microbiology. “I knew very little about microbiology as a chemical engineer. But it was more and more exciting, and led me in new directions.”

Among his notable accomplishments, his discovery of the bacteria responsible for half of the nitrogen in the air we breathe fundamentally changed — and challenged — existing understanding and led to new technologies and applications. “I’m very fortunate to have been a part of discoveries like that,” says Strous. “And lucky. Luck definitely plays a role in discovery.”

Influenced deeply by his father and his PhD mentors, he set to work merging his interests and expertise in engineering and ecology to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For Strous, the excitement of discovery and innovation comes from challenging conventions. Early on, he adopted a "blue ocean" strategy — an approach more common to the business world than science. “It’s a concept in business, when you are starting a company," says Strous. "You can come into a red ocean, where a product comes into an existing market and you face the existing competition. Or you can create a totally new market — a blue ocean — and do something completely different.”

Working with bacteria, he began investigating carbon-negative technologies designed to take CO2 out of the air in an effort to reverse greenhouse gas emissions. “Large-scale technologies are probably always going to be unrealistic because of the massive effort needed to make them work,” he says. “Instead, I decided to look at how many cumulative actions could be part of the solution.”

Reasoning that smaller, economically viable projects could lead others to create carbon-negative technologies, Strous turned again to bacteria.

His work with blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, was designed to simultaneously remove carbon from the atmosphere while producing a highly sought-after product: a natural blue colouring. “The traditional approach is to grow cyanobacteria alone, like a crop in a field," says Strous. "You spend a lot of time trying to nurture that crop and keep all the weeds — like protists and other bacteria — out. It’s not easy, and it’s not very efficient.”

Strous theorized that cyanobacteria could be grown in a community of those organisms, modeling his approach after the natural interactions cyanobacteria would have in the environment. “And,” he says, “it worked.” Cyanobacteria grown in a community of other protists and bacteria thrived.

The result is that the cyanobacteria is growing quickly, and in a sustainable manner. About 10 per cent of the blue-green algae can be harvested to produce a natural pigment that replaces synthetic food colouring — something food manufacturers can’t get enough of.

And the other 90 per cent of the bacteria? “It’s ‘green,” Strous says with a laugh. “You can convert it to a natural gas that can be burned in your home without any CO2 emissions, because the bacteria actually took carbon out of the air to grow in the first place.”

The work led to the creation of Synergia Biotech, a clean-tech startup company poised to lead the way in Alberta’s development of transformative agricultural technology. It’s an example of the kind of innovative approach and thinking that led him to the University of Calgary, where he works with researchers and students to push the boundaries of science.

Marc Strous in the lab

Marc Strous in the lab.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

But Strous also encourages his students and early-career colleagues in the Faculty of Science to look outward, beyond their research. “It’s hard, and certainly over my life there have been times when I’ve had to prioritize research and work over everything else,” he says. “But you have to have a good life outside of sciences. Try to build something else besides your work, because it will force you to pay closer attention to your ideas.”

One good idea, Strous says, can be worth more than months of grinding work. “When you have a really good idea, and you’re onto something really cool, it’s an excitement. A feeling. When you’re certain that it’s a good idea, that’s when you go for it.”

And, he says, recognize that even good ideas don’t always turn out well. “That’s that way science is,” he says, shrugging. “Sometimes it’s a deception. So you move on to the next thing.” 

Strous is a leader in demonstrating a positive work culture, and his unconventional approaches to solving grand research challenges are a source of inspiration in the Faculty of Science, says Dr. Cathy Ryan, PhD, associate dean (research). “He is a dedicated researcher of extraordinary talent,” she says. “And at the same time, he is also a champion for teaching and mentorship for early career scientists, prioritizing the development of his team so they continue to grow and succeed.”

Making time for creative endeavours, family, and friends truly reinforces his vision of science. “It’s important for scientists to share our work, and inspire others. Science is very much a part of human culture; everybody is curious.”

The power of science and discovery, Strous says, helps to realize the great challenges of our times. “When we work together, collectively, the possibilities are limitless.”