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Disease and life: The vast world of microbes revealed at Korean conference

Disease and life: The vast world of microbes revealed at Korean conference


Sponges rely on microbes for health, nutrition and survival Photo: AIMS

AIMS scientists revealed the fascinating and useful world of marine microbes at the 15th International Symposium on Microbial Ecology (ISME) in Seoul in Korea in August. Held every two years, the conference enables scientists to learn about a wide range of research into these microscopic organisms: from their role in disease to their benefits to reef ecosystems. The symposium is the largest conference for microbial ecology in the world.

“It is well known that microbes are essential to human health but they also play a very significant role in maintaining life under the oceans. They are important in understanding both health and disease. Some are beneficial while others are a threat to life. Scientists need to study microbes to better understand how to keep our seas healthy and to better predict how our reef environments will respond to environmental stress,” said AIMS scientist Dr Nicole Webster.

Webster spoke about her research into how microbes are critical to the health, nutrition and survival of reef sponges. However, she also warned that climate change is changing the way microbes function and support life.

“AIMS research has found that when temperature rises over 30 degrees Celsius in the ocean, the balance and behaviour of microbes changes. Above these temperatures, microbes that once supported health can be lost and potentially disease causing microbes can increase and we see a rapid decline in the health of many reef invertebrates” added Webster.

An electron microscope image revealing the incredible abundance and diversity of microorganisms residing within sponge tissue Photo: N. Webster, AIMS

Topics from cholera to volcanic vents

Another AIMS researcher, Dr David Bourne spoke about his studies into the beneficial role of microbes to coral health. In humans the bacteria in your gut are vital for breaking down and assimilating essential nutrients. Similarly in coral, bacteria in the gut play a central role to providing nutrients to the corals. Recently, his team has been studying ‘white syndrome’ which is a bacterium related to cholera that causes coral disease.

Other researchers at the conference spoke about a range of topics: including AIMS SuperScience postdoctoral researcher, Kathy Morrow who has been studying microbial communities associated with coral and sponges in naturally-occurring volcanic seeps in Papua New Guinea. 

Jean-Baptiste Raina accepts Tom Brock Postdoctoral Award at ISME Photo: ISME office

Award for innovative science

Meanwhile at the conference, former AIMS@JCU student Jean-Baptiste Raina was awarded the Tom Brock Postdoctoral Award for the most innovative research by an early career researcher. Raina successfully presented his work using advanced imaging techniques to follow the production of an important sulfur molecule called DMSP (Dimethylsulfoniopropionate) by algal cells and its subsequent uptake and metabolism by marine bacteria. This interaction between marine algae and bacteria result in the production of large amounts of climate-regulating molecules involved in cloud formation.

As a result of this award, Raina has now been invited to join the newly created International Society for Microbial Ecology junior advisory board.

“This conference showed just how important microbes are to us all. In fact, 90-percent of all living organisms under the sea are microbes and these tiny organisms drive the oceans major biogeochemical cycles. They are at the heart of understanding how our seas function,” Dr Webster concluded.

The conference was attended by over 1600 delegates form over 50 countries with 288 presentations and over 1200 posters.