Microbiology: the bigger picture

Hilary Lappin-Scott is professor of microbial ecology, the study of how microorganisms interact with their environment and with each other. Momentum caught up with her to find out why understanding life at the micro-scale has such big implications for society

Microbes, single-celled organisms that include bacteria, algae, fungi, and plankton, are everywhere. Invisible to the naked eye, they can be found ten kilometres below the ocean floor, inside scalding hot springs, in rivers and streams, and even on teeth.  “There is no such thing as a sterile environment,” says Professor Lappin-Scott, “and without microorganisms life as we understand it would not even be possible.

Hilary Lapin Scott

Four billion years ago, microorganisms were the first colonisers of Earth, long before the existence of oxygen. Over time, they broke down nutrients and produced oxygen, thereby stimulating more favourable conditions for life. They remain an essential part of the ecosystem but, although scientists have been aware of their existence since they were first observed in the 1600s, there is still much to discover about how they work.
The field of microbial ecology encompasses a broad range of areas, from industry to biotechnology, medicine to the environment, and energy to food production. “Microorganisms boost our immune systems, treat sewage, and turn grapes into wine,” says Professor Lappin-Scott, “but they can also cause disease, damage the food chain, and produce harmful gases. My research is aimed at understanding their behaviour, and at identifying opportunities to reverse the harmful effects they can cause.”
For example, the Department of Biosciences in Swansea University’s College of Science is involved in several projects researching how nanoparticles may be affecting the natural environment. Nanoscience produces particles used in a wide range of everyday applications, including sunscreen, cosmetics, and medical devices. Inevitably, after use, these nanoparticles find their way into water courses, streams and rivers via the drainage and sewerage systems. And this could be a big issue.
“We do not yet know whether nanoparticles can be broken down, so they may enter the food chain very easily,” explains Professor Lappin-Scott. “Our research is looking at the impact that this might have on complex food webs in the natural environment. If nanoparticles are being ingested by microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain, what effect will this have on the way they cycle nitrogen in soil and streams for instance, and how will this affect life further up the chain? We need to appreciate how we may be damaging the ecosystem by introducing nanoparticles to it.”
Much of Professor Lappin-Scott’s research has been funded by oil companies also looking for ways of halting or reversing microbial activity. Microorganisms in petroleum reservoirs below the ocean floor can produce toxic, and deadly, gases such as hydrogen sulphide, and can also lower the quality of the oil itself. They also cause corrosion in pipelines, and it comes as no surprise that petrochemical companies have an interest in understanding the mechanisms that cause microorganisms to have a detrimental effect, and in research that may yield new materials incorporating antimicrobial properties.

“These microorganisms are able to survive in the most challenging conditions,” says Professor Lappin-Scott, “We’re working with cells that can cope easily with extreme temperatures and high pressure environments. It is also true to say that petroleum reservoirs create conditions that are very similar to those of ancient planet Earth; in many respects, the microbes we’re studying hearken back to the origins of life itself.”

Bacteria will grow equally well on surfaces wherever there is liquid passing by. When those surfaces are in the human body, microorganisms can cause severe problems. Biofilms – microscopic layers of bacteria – can build up on heart valves, implants, and urinary catheters, causing infection and the so-called superbugs such as MRSA.  Professor Lappin-Scott’s research looks for ways to avoid creating reservoirs of infection, and has led to the use of combinations of antibiotics to control MRSA in catheters.  Microbial ecology therefore has distinct clinical and medical applications, which in turn generates interest from pharmaceutical companies.

Hilary Lappin-Scott

Cluster of E.coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Photo by Eric Erbe, Christopher Pooley, USDA, ARS.

Virtually all of Professor Lappin-Scott’s research has been funded by industry, with Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Kodak, and Texaco among the household names to have supported her in recent years. “The commercial potential for microbiology really cannot be overestimated, and not just in terms of the large, multinational companies,” says Professor Lappin-Scott. “There are also many knowledge transfer opportunities for smaller businesses, start-ups, and spin-out companies. We’re looking at life at the smallest scale, but our research is making a huge difference.”

Professor Lappin-Scott is currently President of the Society for General Microbiology and a member of the International Board of the American Society of Micobiology. She was President of the International Society for Microbial Ecology from 2006 to 2010, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the Society of Microbiology, and the European Academy of Microbiology. Professor Lappin-Scott is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Strategic Development/Change Management) at Swansea University.
Pic of Hilary Lappin-Scott

Cluster of E.coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Photo by Eric Erbe, Christopher Pooley, USDA, ARS.</