Tragic Reason for an Extended Stay

Earthquake separates scientist from Ja­pan, but not his research
| July 25, 2011

Japanese researcher Koichi Tamano is not living in his home of Tsukuba, Japan, after the earthquake in March destroyed his lab, but he’s found a new home at the Pacific Northwest Laboratory. As a researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Tamano also works at PNNL through a program called the Alternate Sponsored Fellowship. During the earthquake and tsunami coverage that dominated the airwaves in March, Tamano could only watch the devastation thousands of miles away because his fellowship had brought him to Richland, Wash. Fortunately for Tamano, his wife and young child were also in Richland at the time of the disaster. “My wife called her parents and confirmed their safety,” he says, adding, “two days after the earthquake, I received an e-mail from one of the AIST-lab members and knew no one was injured. But, I was informed the damage of the building and experimental facilities was terrible.”

After arriving in October, Tamano expected to return to Japan in March. Now, PNNL has extended an invitation to Tamano, allowing him to continue his work in Richland until January.

Scott Baker, a researcher at PNNL and coworker of Tamano’s says the ASF is a “fantastic program which allows PNNL the ability to effectively collaborate with other labs with common goals.” For Baker’s lab and Tamano’s lab in Japan, part of that common work deals with fatty acid production in aspergillus oryzae, a fungus commonly used in the production of soy sauce. “Our PNNL biotechnology group is focused on accelerating the generation of fungal cell factories that produce biofuels, renewable chemicals and enzymes,” Baker says, adding that in order to do that, his team “not only needs to understand the basic biology underlying the pathways which produce these things,” but also the ability to perform a scale-up of production. 

In Japan, Baker explains, koji processes (which use the fungi to inoculate the rice grain), “have been very impressively scaled up.” Much of the biology behind the fungi, Baker also says, was researched by Tamano’s lab led by Masauki Machida. “It was natural for us to think about collaborating so that we could leverage each research group’s capabilities for mutual benefit,” Baker says.

Along with Tamano, Machida is also in Richland working on the fungus. But, Machida was not in the same situation as Tamano was, miles from home watching the disaster with no way to help. Machida was actually in the lab when the earthquake hit but, along with 3,000 other workers at the lab, escaped injury.

From Baker’s perspective, keeping Tamano on staff for an extended time won’t be a problem even though the lab in Japan is back online, albeit in limited capacity yet. “Shortly after he (Tamano) arrived, we were able to have Kochi complete our comprehensive safety training and he very quickly started interacting with the rest of the group here,” Baker says of Tamano’s arrival in October. “While Koichi’s home institution is AIST, we consider him a member of our research team as well.” Koichi shares the same enthusiasm for the lab. “I love the atmosphere at PNNL,” he says. 

—Luke Geiver