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New AIMS facility will help scientists show why life is a symbiosis

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02 October 2008

AIMS is embarking on a scientific quest to answer fundamental questions about the unseen world of marine microbes, focused on the symbiotic relationships between the smallest creatures known and their hosts.

The new AIMS Centre for Marine Microbiology and Genetics Research (CMMG), being opened today by the Hon Desley Boyle MP, Queensland Minister for Tourism, Regional Development and Industry, will make the Institute a major international player in the burgeoning field of marine microbiology.

Support for the CMMG has been provided by the Queensland Government under its Smart State Research Facilities fund and by the Commonwealth Government.

Microbes, in their many forms including bacteria, algae and viruses, live in mutually beneficial or antagonistic relationships with each other and with bigger animals, and this drives many of the vital systems of life.

According to Professor Linda Blackall who leads AIMS' Understanding Marine Microbes and Symbioses research team, these microscopic creatures present a new frontier as insights into the importance of microbes to all forms of life on Earth emerge.

"Life is a symbiosis," Professor Blackall said. "There is strong emerging evidence that the evolutionary process itself is dependent upon symbiotic microbial activity. Indeed, it is now thought that about 90 per cent of the human genome is made up of genes derived originally from viruses.

"At AIMS, we are especially looking at how marine microbes function with each other and in relation to other creatures. This is expected to provide a more detailed picture than ever before of how marine systems operate at their most basic level," Professor Blackall said.

There are more than a billion micro-organisms in each litre of seawater, and microbes dominate the abundance, diversity and metabolic activity of the ocean. They make up 98 per cent of life in the world's oceans, supply more than half the world's oxygen, are the major processors of the world's greenhouse gases and have the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Symbiosis is one of the major themes of the new work being done at the CMMG. This includes how the various relationships that form between microbes influence, for example, the health of corals and reef ecosystems and the capacity to develop a viable rock lobster aquaculture industry.

Little is known about the fundamental processes of microbial symbiosis in the tropical marine world, and the new AIMS CMMG facility is developing a robust research program designed to fill the gaps.

"It's a very open field," Professor Blackall said. "Marine microbial ecology is just starting to emerge internationally as the next big thing in marine science. AIMS has decided to invest in this strategically important area to deepen our understanding of how the marine environment works."

The CMMG will make possible new research, particularly concerning:

  • reef health
  • assessing whether microbial symbioses (such as coral-algal and coral-bacterial symbioses) are vulnerable to environmental change and to what extent they can adapt to it
  • developing sustainable technologies for producing high value aquaculture target species such as rock lobsters.

The rock lobster research program seeks to overcome current bottlenecks in developing sustainable rock lobster aquaculture through better understanding of both the good bacteria that are necessary for lobster development and the harmful bacteria that inhibit it.

The coral research examines, for example, the phenomenon of "symbiont shuffling" in which corals may change their array of symbiotic algae in response to higher sea surface temperature, thus making them better able to cope with climate change.

Work on coral diseases will also be given a high priority, given recent disease outbreaks on many reefs, including on the Great Barrier Reef.

The CMMG facilities are expected to become a magnet for scientists from around the world. "They will be able to do science on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef that has not been possible before," CMMG Director and AIMS principal research scientist Dr Madeleine van Oppen said. The Level 2 Physical Containment (PC2) and Level 2 Quarantine Containment (QC2) aquaria will allow researchers to investigate a range of pathogens that can't be accommodated in other Australian marine labs.

More information about the CMMG may be found at

Note that the Hon Desley Boyle MP, Minister for Tourism, Regional Development and Industry, will officially open the CMMG at 11am today at AIMS headquarters near Townsville. Minister Boyle will be available for interview from 11.50am to 12.10pm, as will senior AIMS personnel.

For further information, please contact:

Professor Linda Blackall

Phone: 07 4753 4102

Mobile: 0407 038 239

Ms Wendy Ellery ,AIMS Media Liaison

Phone: 07 4753 4409

Mobile: 0418 729 265


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