In Memoriam: Smith, Michael R.

In Memoriam: Smith, Michael R.


Dr. Michael R. Smith, a retired microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service at the Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California, passed away on December 19, 2017, at the age of 72, in Pasco, Washington, after a long and courageous battle with cancer. He was a member of ASM throughout his career.

He attended El Camino College in Torrance, CA, and Long Beach City College in Long Beach, CA, prior to completing his B.S. degree in Microbiology in 1967 at California State College, Long Beach. After graduation, he completed his Medical Technologist and Public Health Microbiologist certifications, and worked as a Medical Technologist throughout his graduate studies and post-doctoral work. He was accepted into graduate school in 1970 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and graduated with his Ph.D. in Microbiology in 1976 from UCLA. He published his dissertation on “The Purification of Pseudouridine Synthetase II” under the direction of Dr. Donald Nierlich.


Michael then went on to complete his post-doctoral work (1976-1980) under the direction of Dr. Robert Mah at UCLA. It is during this time that he began work on one of his most significant and ground-breaking accomplishments. He isolated and characterized an acetate-fermenting strain of Methanosarcina (strain 227), and showed for the first time that acetate could be converted directly into methane and CO2 without the addition of external sources of H2. His further studies showed that acetate was the sole carbon and energy source for this microorganism, and he began work to elucidate the electron transport mechanisms involved in this conversion. 

After completing his postdoc, he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service at the Western Regional Research Center in Albany, CA from 1980 until the time of his retirement in 2008. He continued his studies on Methanosarcina, and wrote a chapter on “The Methanogenic Bacteria,” which was published in the book, The Prokaryotes: A Handbook on Habits, Isolation, and Identification of Bacteria, published in 1981. While working for the USDA, he worked on a number of other projects of significance including the sporulation of Clostridium cylindrosporum, insoluble glucan formation by Leuconostoc mesenteroides, cellular association of glucosyltransferases in Leuconostoc mesenteroides, production and characterization of amylase by Arthrobacter psychrolactophilus, and studies on Bacillus licheniformis’ xylanase. He retired from the USDA in August 2008, after 27 years of dedicated service, thus achieving his dream of being an accomplished scientist. His interest in science continued long beyond his retirement, and his work and accomplishments will live on.

Submitted By:
Stephanie Smith, Ph.D.
Consumer Food Safety Specialist
Assistant Professor
Washington State University
Pullman, WA