woman at aquaria tank filed with oral, standing under special aquaria lighting.

Prof Madeleine van Oppen

Senior Principal Research Scientist
Coral genetics
07 4753 4370
+61 7 4753 4370

Professor Madeleine van Oppen is an ecological geneticist with an interest in microbial symbioses and climate change adaptation of reef corals. Her work has been published in >190 peer reviewed papers and book chapters. Her early career focused on evolutionary and population genetics of algae and fish, and subsequently corals.

Her current research focuses on the development of coral stock better able to cope with disturbed environments and predicted future ocean conditions (i.e., assisted evolution). This includes the development of bacterial probiotics, the directed evolution of the coral's microalgal symbionts, coral hybridisation and selective breeding, and coral conditioning. Her team is also exploring genetic engineering of microbial symbionts with the aim to increase coral thermal tolerance. Omics and advanced microscopy approaches are used by her research group in combination with phenotypic measurements to gain understanding of the mechanisms of adaptation and acclimation of corals to climate change.

Postgraduate Education

MSc (1990), PhD (1995), Univ Groningen, Netherlands. Thesis: Tracking Trails by Cracking Codes: Molecular Biogeography and Evolution of Benthic Cold-Water Seaweeds.

Employment History

2019-2023 Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow (AIMS/Univ Melbourne)

2015-2018 Senior Principal Research Scientist (AIMS)/Professor in Marine Biology (Univ Melbourne)

2011-2015 Australian Research Council Future Fellow (AIMS)

2008-2011 Inaugural director of the Centre for Marine Microbiology and Genetics (AIMS)

2001-2008 Research Team Leader (AIMS)

2000-2001 Australian Research Council Fellow, James Cook Univ (Australia)

1997-2000 Postdoctoral Fellow, James Cook Univ (Australia)

1995-1997 Postdoctoral Research Associate, Univ East Anglia (UK)


2013: Paul Allen Ocean Challenge award (with Ruth Gates) Building a biological toolkit to mitigate ocean acidification impacts and restore corals reefs

2005: Dorothy Hill award, awarded by the Australian Academy of Science for Madeleine’s contributions to Australia’s coral reef science

1995: PhD obtained cum laude


Madeleine is driven by a desire to find biological solutions for mitigating the effects of climate warming that have resulted in a terrifyingly rapid loss of coral around the world. She currently works in two main areas of research:

  1. Coral assisted evolution for reef restoration
  2. The ecology and evolution of the coral-microbial symbiosis

Madeleine pioneered the field of coral assisted evolution (e.g., van Oppen et al. 2015 PNAS 112: 2307-2313), research that is now widely used at AIMS and by many other research organisations across the globe. Her Laureate Fellowship aims to develop microbes able to enhance the climate resilience of corals. She also conducts more basic research to decipher the roles of bacterial and microalgal symbionts within the coral holobiont, and the interactions among coral, algae and bacteria.

Other Activities

International Committees/Roles

  • Member of local organising committee to host the International Symposium of Microbial Ecology (ISME19) in Auckland (New Zealand) in 2022.
  • Chair of organising panel for session Can coral climate resilience be enhanced via assisted evolution? At the International Coral Reef Symposium 2020, Bremen, Germany.
  • Corresponding chair of Gordon Conference Marine Molecular Ecology 2019
  • Scientific Advisory Committee for the Red Sea Research Centre at King Abdullah University Science and Technology (2016-present).
  • Associate Editor for the journal Science Advances (2017-2020)

Student/Postdoc Supervision & Mentoring

Madeleine has trained/mentored to completion 29 PhD, over 30 MSc and honours students, and 9 postdoctoral fellows. She has also supervised many undergraduate interns. She currently mentors 5 postdocs and ~10 postgraduate/honours students.

Selected recent media events

  • Science et Vie TV Network (commissioned by AB Productions and broadcast Sep and Oct 2019). This is a 52min in-depth documentary of AIMS research in the reef restoration sphere. Highlights include Madeleine van Oppen on the topics of Assisted evolution, coral hybridisation and spawning.
  • ABC Radio National The Round Table. 8 September 2019. Live radio debate on the state of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Presentation at Beakerstreet@TMAG in Hobart during National Science week Designer corals and the future of coral reefs (27 May 2019).
  • Feature article The reef builders in the journal Science, 25 March 2019 (DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6433.1264).
  • Panel discussion World Science Festival, Brisbane, Our Jewelled Seas: Future-proofing the Great Barrier Reef, 21 March 2019.
  • Pursuit article, March 2019, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/breeding-baby-corals-for-warmer-seas
  • Public panel discussion at the National History Museum in London, July 2nd 2018. The World Debate: The Engineers. This has been broadcast on the BBC World Service several times. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csxhjb
  • Feature article Time to speed up coral evolution? in Cosmos Magazine vol. 78, 70-81 (2018).
  • Public Q&A with Madeleine on assisted evolution held for the launch of the April 2018 edition of Cosmos Magazine at Readings Carlton (April 9th).
  • Madeleine’s research features in the 3-part BBC series on the GBR, narrated by David Attenborough, which aired in Australia in 2016 and 2018.