Congratulations to Laura Lehtovirta-Morley on her EU funding for nitrogen cycling research

Dr Lehtovirta-Morley, a Royal Society fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at UEA since 2017, has been awarded a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant of €1.5M to study nitrogen-cycling microorganisms in the soil. Modern agriculture relies heavily on the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, but a vast proportion of the fertiliser is lost from agricultural soils due to the activity of microorganisms called ammonia oxidising archaea and bacteria. This results in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, and can lead to water pollution and reduction in crop yields. Until recently, it has been challenging to study ammonia oxidising microorganisms and this has made it more difficult to predict and manage nitrogen turnover in soil environments. Dr Lehtovirta-Morley has carried out pioneering research in her field by isolating new, globally abundant soil ammonia oxidising archaea and characterising them in her laboratory. Using these microorganisms and innovative research tools funded by the ERC, she will now be able to study the biology of ammonia oxidation in exceptional detail, to reveal new mechanisms underpinning nitrogen cycling in the environment and, ultimately, to address problems which lead to climate change.


Mauritian Conservation Science and Management Meeting, Cardiff, June 2019

The Mauritian Conservation Science and Management Meeting was held at Cardiff University on the 19th and 20th June 2019. The two-day meeting showcased a large range of conservation projects on endangered wildlife and flora of Mauritius. This included studies on the Echo Parakeet, Mauritius Kestrel, Mauritius Fody, the Bojer’s Skinks on the South-eastern islands, critically endangered plant species on Round Island, as well as conservation work conducted at Chester Zoo. There were various talks on the pink pigeon, which was recently down-listed on the IUCN Red List from Endangered to Vulnerable. One of the projects partially funded by ELSA investigates the population genomics of the pink pigeon. A presentation by Prof. Cock van Oosterhout showed the impacts of a population bottleneck on the genetic variation and viability of the free-living pink pigeon population on Mauritius. It showed that although the population numbers had recovered from around 12 birds in the 1970 – 1980s to approximately 400 in 2019, the impact of the bottleneck is likely to have long-term consequences for viability of the population. Genetic supplementation with captive bred birds from zoos in the UK and Europe might be needed to maintain a viable population in the long term.

Photo: Participants of the Mauritian Conservation Science and Management Meeting at Cardiff University on the 19th and 20th June 2019.


Early Career Researchers lead the way

An ERC Workshop centred round Biogeochemical Cycles and Climate Change organised by Leanne Sims, Lisa Gibson and Chloe Wright from UEA recently attracted around 45 researchers from across the Norwich Research Park for an exciting day of climate-related science. Ten excellent presentations from ECRs, ranging from biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorous and metals through to the gut metagenome and climate change and effects of temperature on crop performance, were flanked by two stimulating plenary talks from Rachel Warren from UEA (Climate change research and the science policy interface) and Anna Jones from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS and climate change science). A number of posters were also presented which, together with the talks, demonstrated the depth and breadth of science in this research area across the NRP campus. To complement the environmental research on offer, visual artist Jacqui Jones from the Norwich University of the Arts ( described some of her interesting work on environmental issues and displayed some of her artwork at the workshop.

Photo shows (left to right) poster prize winner Barbora Oudova (BIO-UEA) for her work on ammonia oxidising archaea and talk winners Beth Williams (BIO-UEA) on bacterial cycling of organosulfur compounds in saltmarsh sediments and Becca Doherty (John Innes Centre) on effects of temperature on crop performance in oilseed rape.


Hydrocarbon cycling at the bottom of the Mariana Trench

Researchers in China and the UK, including Jonathan Todd and David Lea-Smith at the UEA School of Biological Sciences, and Nikolai Pedentchouk at the UEA School of Environmental Sciences, have published a paper in the journal Microbiome, investigating the microbial populations at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This trench reaches a depth of 11,000 metres, the lowest known point in the ocean, and organisms living in this environment have to survive water pressure equal to 1,091 kilograms pressed against a fingernail. This study examined the genetic potential of the microbial population at the bottom of the trench. Approximately a quarter of bacteria had the potential to degrade hydrocarbons, the highest proportion in any environment on Earth. Some of these hydrocarbons may be derived from ocean surface pollution but biological alkane production was also observed from an unknown source. These results reveal that hydrocarbon-degrading microorganisms are present in great abundance in the deepest seawater on Earth and shed new light on potential biological processes in this extreme environment. 


Evolutionary genomics of anthroponosis in Cryptosporidium

Generalist pathogens can infect multiple host species. In the case of anthroponotic infectious diseases, the spread is from humans to animals, whereas zoonotic diseases spread from animals to humans. Many Cryptosporidium species can infect multiple hosts, and these infections tend to result in severe diarrhoea. Diarrhoeal pathogens cause more mortality than malaria, measles, and AIDS combined. Globally, Cryptosporidium is the most severe, vaccine non-preventable cause of diarrhoeal mortality for children under five. The zoonotic Cryptosporidium parvum and the anthroponotic Cryptosporidium hominis account for a vast majority of such cases. Because these infections cannot be treated with vaccines, understanding the biology and transmission of these pathogens is important. In a recent paper published in Nature Microbiology, Nader et al. (2019) conducted a phylogenetic comparison of 21 whole genome sequences to investigate the evolutionary genomic changes of Cryptosporidium during its association and specialisation to its human host. In addition, the study characterised the global distribution of Cryptosporidium species and subtypes, summarising the data of 743 peer-reviewed publications of cases in a total of 126 countries. The study shows that hybridisation between four anthroponotic Cryptosporidium subtypes and species has led to genetic exchange between these pathogens, and that these hybridisation events have occurred recently, probably within the past millennium. The genes that are exchanged during hybridisation are undergoing rapid change due to strong natural selection, and in particular genes that are responsible for coding extracellular peptides show evidence of rapid adaptive evolution. The study also identifies a new subspecies, Cryptosporidium parvum anthroponosum, which has only recently emerged through hybridisation. This species is well-adapted to humans and appears to have a distinct way of infecting host through direct human-to-human transmission. The study suggests that this could explain the occasional outbreaks of infections in Europe, which may be transmitted by travellers who have visited developing countries.

Picture: Scanning electron micrograph showing a Cryptosporidium infection of (rat) colon. Credits: Bohumil Sak, Nikola Holubová, Martin Kváč.

Nader JL, Mathers TC, Ward BJ, Pachebat JA, Swain MT, Robinson G, Chalmers RM, Hunter PR, van Oosterhout C, Tyler KM. Evolutionary genomics of anthroponosis in Cryptosporidium. Nature Microbiology. 2019 Mar 4:1.

ELSA PhD student success at Microbes in Norwich

Over 230 Microbiologists from across the Norwich Research Park came together to enjoy an excellent day of exciting science at Microbes in Norwich 2019. This Biennial event showcases the depth and breadth of microbiology research across the NRP. In addition to 10 research talks from newly established microbiologists on the NRP and a super Plenary talk on marine symbioses from Professor Nicole Dubilier of the Max Planck Institute of Marine Sciences, Bremen, Germany, there were over 50 posters from Early Career Researchers on display. The International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME) sponsored Microbes in Norwich through two Poster Prizes. ELSA PhD student Lisa Gibson (left in picture) received a prize for her poster describing the ecology of isoprene degrading bacteria in palm oil forest from Nicole Dubilier who is also Vice President of ISME.


Microbes in Norwich 2019

The Organising Committee for Microbes in Norwich 2019 would like to acknowledge support from the International Society for Microbial Ecology, Nature Microbiology and the Microbiology Society and in particular for their sponsorship of Poster Prizes for Early Career Researchers. The Poster Awards Committee chaired by Jon Todd (UEA) had a difficult job in selecting just seven winners for the various prizes from over 50 excellent posters that highlighted the breadth of research in the microbial sciences across the Norwich Research Park. Alex Howat (left), a former ELSA PhD student, now Publishing Operations Manager at the Microbiology Society, presenting prizes to Emma Holden (QIB) and Leanne Sims (right, a current ELSA PhD student at UEA working on the enzyme isoprene monooxygenase).

Blue Haze and Bacteria

Have you ever wondered what causes the blue haze over the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the USA or the Blue Mountains in Australia? It is caused by a volatile organic compound called isoprene that is released in huge amounts by trees. Isoprene is an interesting trace gas in the atmosphere as it can cause both global warming and cooling. Unlike methane, which is consumed by methane oxidising bacteria, we know little about the biogeochemical cycles for isoprene and if microbes can consume this climate-active gas. Andrew Crombie and colleagues at UEA hypothesised that the leaves of high isoprene-emitting trees such as poplar. Using stable isotope probing, metagenomics and metatranscriptomics they showed that the phyllosphere of poplar did indeed harbour isoprene-degrading bacteria of the genus Rhodococcus which had been previously been found in soil environments and also more diverse isoprene degraders such as Variovorax, providing a new model isoprene-degrader to study the metabolism of isoprene in the lab. The work, recently published in PNAS nicely demonstrates the variety of isoprene degraders present in the phyllosphere of poplar trees.

Microbial Interactions across the Norwich Research Park

Over 100 Early Career Researchers from across the Norwich Research Park came together for a One-Day Workshop on Microbial Interactions organised by the Microbes in Norwich Team and ELSA. The line-up features speakers from UEA, the Earlham Institute, Quadrum Institute of Biosciences, the John Innes Centre and an excellent, diverse range of topics were covered. These included plant-virus interactions, insect-microbe symbioses, bacteriophage-bacteria interactions and the human microbiome. The Plenary Lecture was given by Professor Itzik Mizrahi from the Department of Life Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. In a highly entertaining and inspirational lecture entitled “Persistent drivers of animal gut microbiome plasticity and persistence” he described cutting edge research aimed at understanding the ecological and evolutionary forces that shape microbial communities in nature and specifically, in gut environments, using both the gut of fish and the rumen of cattle as model systems. His research is enabling his research team to predict and modulate the composition of the microbiome with the overall goal of optimizing functionality. The large turnout of ECRs for this event highlights the great strength and breadth in microbiology across the Norwich Research Park and the opportunities to exchange new ideas and forge new collaborations.

Dr Laura Lehtovirta-Morley joins Editorial Board of The ISME Journal

Dr Laura Lehtovirta-Morley, our new Dorothy Hodgkin Royal Society Research Fellow in the ELSA lab at UEA has just accepted an invitation to join the Editorial Board of The ISME Journal. The ISME Journal is the premier journal in the field of microbial ecology with an Impact Factor of 9.5 and has recently celebrated 10 year of publication (see Congratulations Laura on this recognition.


Earlham institute
Quadram Institute Bioscience
John Innes Centre
The Sainsbury Laboratory
University of East Anglia

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