Tom Curtis

Professor of Environmental Engineering
Newcastle University, UK

Tom Curtis photo

Microbial Ecology is a Numbers Game - A Puzzle with 1030 Pieces

Tom Curtis decided to become a microbiologist as a teenager after reading “Invisible Allies” by Bernard Dixon, a popular science book showing microbes as a force for good in the world.  An undistinguished graduate of the BSc in microbiology at Leeds he joined the Public Health Engineering research team in the same university under Duncan Mara, who sought to put Dixons words into action. Working primarily in Northeast Brazil on low cost wastewater treatment systems he gained an MEng and PhD in Public Health Engineering, with a brief interlude in Jordan starting up and managing Aqaba water reclamation plant.  As a PhD student he read Tom Brock’s short essay “The study of microorganisms in situ”  and realised that microbial ecologist were the people who understood how microbes behave in the real world and that doing good in the world with microbes meant doing microbial ecology.  Eschewing a post doc (and the dole) for a period working on public health policy for the UK government. He eventually became a lecturer and latterly Professor of Environmental Engineering in Newcastle University. His core interest is now the engineering of real open microbial systems and his abiding belief is that these systems obey a suite of fundamental and universal rules. Furthermore, we will only unlock the power of engineered systems in particular, and microbial systems in general, when we grasp those rules. He is particularly interested  in the engineering of the  diversity and community assembly of microbial communities. This work is central to all open biological systems, engineered or otherwise


Annette Summers Engel, Ph.D.

Jones Professor of Aqueous Geochemistry
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
University of Tennessee, USA

A Engel photo

Exploring the Underworld: The Significance of Finding Sites with New Diversity.

From the age of 12, Annette Summers Engel knew she wanted to be a professor. She was inspired by exemplary scientists who were able to bridge disciplinary boundaries while studying cave geology and biology. She holds a PhD from The University of Texas at Austin, where her geochemistry and geomicrobiology research focused on cave and karst systems. Now, as the endowed Jones Professor of Aqueous Geochemistry at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, she teaches and mentors students across disciplinary boundaries. Her research examines the microbial diversity and ecology of extreme environments and symbiotic associations, from caves to shallow marine systems, investigates how geological, geochemical, and environmental (including anthropogenic) conditions control the distribution of life in the landscape, and delineates how life, in turn, shapes that environment through time. Because knowledge of biodiversity in these places is generally limited, and many subsurface and shallow near-surface environments are at risk of being destroyed or irreparably damaged, the first goal for her research is to determine the biodiversity, which requires tedious, and sometimes risky, human exploration. Her research is leading to new exploration strategies that can help in the management and conservation of undescribed subsurface environments. Moreover, because she believes that “out-of-sight” should not be “out-of-mind,” her work is providing important information about the critical role of the subsurface to human populations.


Prof. Gene Tyson

Deputy Director 
Australian Centre for Ecogenomics
The University of Queensland, Australia

gene-tyson 35

Uncovering new players in archaeal methane cycling

Gene Tyson is a microbial ecologist who applies culture-independent molecular approaches to understand the structure and function of in situ microbial communities. During his dissertation research, he led one of the first studies to use metagenomics to explore the metabolic potential and population diversity of microbial communities involved in acid mine drainage generation. This demonstrated for the first time that metagenomic data could be used to reconstruct genomes directly from environmental samples. Following his PhD, he sought more complex microbial communities on which to apply cutting-edge molecular tools. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2006-2009), he conducted postdoctoral research work aimed at understanding the composition, functional potential, regulation, and evolution of complex marine microbial communities at sites around the world’s oceans. A highlight of this research was the development of metatranscriptomics to investigate gene expression in microbial communities, which led to the discovery that marine microorganisms express a surprisingly large number of small RNAs. In 2009, Gene returned to Australia to start his own research group at The University of Queensland (UQ). His group uses the metagenomic and metatranscriptomic approaches he helped pioneer to investigate microbial communities in a wide range of different habitats including both engineered systems and natural ecosystems. His research is primarily focused on exploring novel diversity with a special interest in microorganisms involved in methane cycling. He also has a strong interest in bioinformatics and his team actively develop new ways to analyse metagenomic, metatranscriptomic and single cell data.


John Spear, Ph.D.

Associate Vice President for Research
Dept of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Colorado School of Mines, USA

John Spear

Lessons Learned from the Accessible Deep Hot Biosphere

John Spear is a microbial ecologist who did not wake up to the fact that the wonderful smells of soils and fresh rain from his childhood are due to microbes until he was in graduate school.  With a focus on the microbial metabolism of heavy metals, primarily uranium, John worked with sulfate-reducing microbiota in environmentally engineered systems for his Ph.D.  Next, it was a multi-year postdoc in subsurface Yellowstone National Park to consider what fuels microbiota (H2!) in the subsurface.  John also spent considerable time on the microbial ecology of Bacteria, Archaea and Eucarya in the amazing microbial mats of Guerrero Negro, Baja California.  His current research interests at the Colorado School of Mines are primarily driven by further consideration of subsurface processes.  Two projects include the metabolism of sulfur and its potential for biosignature utilization on ice from Borup Fiord Pass, Ellesmere Island, Canada (an analog for Jupiter’s moon Europa) and the potential for serpentinization to fuel subsurface microbiota in the Semail Ophiolite of Oman are active projects.  But his lab also works on water and wastewater treatment, the biotic treatment of oil and gas produced waters and the effects of microbes on the corrosion of metals within deployed infrastructure.  Clearly, John lacks focus—is the motto of his lab.



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