About the Society

International Society for Subsurface Microbiology

The International Society for Subsurface Microbiology is a unique group made up of microbiologists, ecologists, geoscientists, and other researchers and students around the world who are captivated with the various aspects of subsurface microbiology, a rapidly expanding field that focuses on microbial life below the surface of the earth.

Integrating microbiology and the geosciences, the field of subsurface microbiology explores the ecology and evolution of microbial life in subsurface environments such as marine sediments, terrestrial groundwater, and the deep subsurface. The outcomes of this research can affect our current state- of-knowledge and future advancements in many industries.

The Society is best known for organizing week-long symposia on subsurface microbiology every 3 years in locations as diverse as California, Germany, Japan, Wyoming, Denmark, Florida, and England. These symposia are meant to showcase the latest technologies and research in subsurface microbiology.

Examples of Areas of Interest
  • Aquifer Ecology
  • Astrobiology
  • Bank Filtration Microbiology
  • Biorestoration of Contaminated Aquifers
  • Biogeochemistry in the Subsurface
  • Cave, Karst, and Fractured Rock Microbiology
  • Coal-bed methane and petroleum reservoir microbiology
  • Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing on Subsurface Communities
  • Landfill and Mine Tailings Microbiology
  • Microbe-Mineral Interactions
  • Microbial Fate and Transport in the Subsurface
  • Microbiology of Coastal Beach Aquifers
  • Microbiology of Extreme Subsurface Environments
  • Molecular Studies in Subsurface Microbiology
  • Permafrost Microbiology
  • Subseafloor Microbiology
  • Subsurface Survival of Pathogens
  • And more.

History of ISSM

The International Symposia for Subsurface Microbiology, which are held every three years at different locations around the world, began with a meeting in Orlando, Florida USA in January 1990 entitled “First International Symposium on the Microbiology of the Deep Subsurface”. The conference, organized by Drs. Carl Fliermans and Terry Hazen and cosponsored by United States Department of Energy (USDOE) and Savannah River National Lab (Georgia), was designed to share exciting research results from USDOE’s Subsurface Science Program with those interested in the microbiology and geochemistry of the terrestrial subsurface.

Davos, Switzerland, ISSM 3Davos, Switzerland, site of the 3rd ISSM in 1996.

An International Committee (IC) was formed in order to provide guidance and help promote subsequent ISSM conferences. The first IC was composed of many accomplished subsurface microbiologists and geomicrobiologists, including Dr. Henry Ehrlich, author of Geomicrobiology, and Dr. Mikhail Ivanov, who pioneered research on subsurface microbial communities living in deep oil field reservoirs long before subsurface microbiology was an established field. Widespread interest in the first conference led to a second (organized by Dr. David Balkwill, then a Professor at Florida State University) that was considerably broader in scope and more international in participation. The word “deep” was dropped from the conference title and the “Second International Symposium on Subsurface Microbiology” (ISSM 1993) was convened near ancient Roman ruins in the iconic town of Bath, England.

All the ISSM have been held in interesting and scenic locales. Because the organizers, Local Organizing Committees, and supporting institutions have changed from conference to conference, the focus of each ISSM has been somewhat different as the conference moved to Davos, Switzerland in 1996; Vail, Colorado USA in 1999; Copenhagen, Denmark in 2002; Jackson Hole, Wyoming USA in 2005; Shizuoka, Japan in 2008; Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in 2011; and Pacific Grove, California USA in 2014. By design, the attendances at ISSM have been modest, typically between 200 and 300 attendees. The smaller attendances and the longer breaks between sessions facilitated more substantive and meaningful interactions among attendees than typically occur in large meetings.

For many of the conference programs, key findings presented in the talks and posters were summarized in the closing sessions by Dr. Bill Ghiorse, then Editor-in-Chief of Geomicrobiology Journal. Dr. Ghiorse’s editorial on the history of subsurface microbiology may be found in these webpages. A number of thematic issues in scientific journals (FEMS Microbiology Ecology, FEMS Microbiology Reviews, Geomicrobiology Journal, Journal of Environmental Quality) have resulted from findings presented during the meetings. See a listing on this page.

The scope of ISSM has expanded steadily from conference to conference, reflecting an expansion of science topics related to subsurface microbiology and now includes microbial community diversity and ecology, molecular methods for studying subsurface microbiology, astrobiology, subsurface microbial transport, microbial aspects of bank filtration and aquifer storage-and-recovery, biorestoration of contaminated aquifers, biogeochemistry, and subsurface survival of pathogens.

The subsurface environments of interest have similarly expanded and now include both shallow and deep aquifers; granular, fractured-rock, and karst/cave environments; oil-, coal- and gas-bearing formations; subterrestrial and subseafloor; contaminated and pristine subsurface environments; and, because of the possibilities for extraterrestrial life, subsurface environments elsewhere in our solar system.

By ISSM 1999, it was becoming apparent that the subsurface microbiology symposia series could benefit from a supporting scientific society. Dr. Ronald Harvey, with the help of David Metge (both of the US Geological Survey) started an International Society of Subsurface Microbiology website, collected ISSM membership information, archived past conference materials, and later drafted an ISSM Charter. This new International Society for Subsurface Microbiology was ratified by the IC and its first president was elected at the 2002 ISSM (See the list of ISSM presidents). For ISSM 2014, the National Water Research Institute (NWRI, conference administrators) made it possible for the International Society for Subsurface Microbiology web pages to be redesigned with the help of a professional web designer. The expert assistance provided by Simple Lives Web Design, NWRI’s contract web design firm, in the construction of these webpages is gratefully acknowledged.

Student participants at ISSM Japan 2008

Over 100 poster presentations, many by students, were on display at ISSM 2008 in Shizuoka, Japan.

ISSM 2008 Japan

The Society’s high-quality symposia, held every 3 years, provide valuable opportunities to network, share knowledge, and increase your organization’s visibility among attendees from all over the world.

Photo: Dr. Kenji Kato (left) at ISSM 2008 Japan.

What Is Subsurface Microbiology?

The largest communities of living organisms can’t be found on land or sea — they are underground, beneath the land and seafloor surface.

A broad range of microorganisms populate the subsurface environment. Some exist in extreme environments, where nutrients are scarce and temperatures extreme. Others carry out important biological or geochemical processes that alter their surroundings, such as breaking down pollutants or changing the mineral content of groundwater.

Yet many of the details about the activities and interactions of subsurface microorganisms have only recently come to light, and their impacts on the environment and public health are not yet completely understood.

Carlsbad Caverns 225 meters below land surface in Carlsbad Caverns, formed 250 million years ago.  Photo: R. Harvey, USGS.

Integrating microbiology and the geosciences, the field of subsurface microbiology explores the ecology and evolution of microbial life in subsurface environments that include marine sediments, terrestrial groundwater, and the deep subsurface. The outcomes of this research can affect our current state-of-knowledge and future advancements in many industries.

Take fossil fuel extraction, as an example. Although microbial-enhanced oil recovery has been studied for decades, more recent attention is focusing on subsurface microbiology as it relates to other methods of extracting fossil fuels from the beneath the earth’s surface. The microbiology of coal-bed methane production and the effects of hydraulic fracking upon groundwater microbial communities are topics of increasing interest and environmental concern.

In the water industry, the role of microorganisms in drinking-water aquifers — how they biodegrade organic compounds, interact with minerals, and assist in the transportation of pollutants — has impact on issues such as groundwater quality and waterborne disease transmission. These issues are significant to communities interested in maximizing the use of their groundwater basins to improve water supply reliability through activities like the bioremediation of contaminated aquifers, groundwater recharge with recycled water, or the expansion of existing groundwater production infrastructure. Addressing these issues can help communities make sound water supply investment decisions.

Using recent advances in technology and methodology, research in subsurface microbiology is at the forefront of microbiological research in a number of areas. The rapidly developing field of metagenomics, as an example, is providing new insight into the characterization of subsurface microbial communities, whereas other researchers are examining microbial communities that thrive under extreme conditions in the subsurface to assess the possibilities of life elsewhere in our solar system and beyond.

ISSM Germany 2011

The focus of our symposia is on exchanging ideas to advance the science — with a little cultural exchange thrown in for fun.

Photo: Dr. Rainer Meckenstock at ISSM 2011 Germany.

ISSM Thematic Issues In Microbiology Journals

ISSM-1996: FEMS Microbiology Reviews (1997, 20 (3-4), Guest editor: Reinhard Bachofen).

ISSM-2002: FEMS Microbiology Ecology (2004, 49 (1-2), Guest editors: Hans-Jørgen Albrechtsen and Jens Aamand).

ISSM-2005: Geomicrobiology Journal (2007, 24 (3-4), Guest editors: George Redden and Rick Colwell).

ISSM-2008: Geomicrobiology Journal (2010, 27 (2) and 27 (3), Guest editor: Kenji Kato).

ISSM-2011: FEMS Microbiology Ecology (2012, 81 (1), Guest Editors: Tillmann Lueders, Christian Griebler and Max Häggblom).

ISSM-2014: Journal of Environmental Quality (2015, 44 (5), Technical Editor: Scott Bradford, Special Section Guest Editors: Jack Schijven, Thomas Harter).

Pacific Grove

The Ninth International Symposium on Subsurface Microbiology
was held October 5-10, 2014, on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in Pacific Grove, California.