The connection between coral reefs and the bacteria that inhabit the human gut may not seem obvious but for Dr Mathieu Pernice it’s perfectly clear.
“They are both good examples of symbiosis. Algae live in symbiosis with their coral hosts in a similar way to the gut bacteria that reside in their human hosts.”
Dr Pernice, a marine biologist in the UTS Climate Change Cluster has studied symbioses for many years but it’s the ability to now study the metabolic activity of microorganisms at the single cell level using technology such as Secondary Ion Mass Spectroscopy (SIMS) that is really opening up a whole new world, and not just for environmental scientists such as himself. The technology has advanced rapidly in the past 5 – 10 years and through the Australian Society for Microbiology (ASM) Visiting Speakers Program Dr Pernice is using his niche SIMS expertise to reach a broad audience of scientists around Australia.
“The biological application of SIMS technology is a very specialised field. For the Nanoscale Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (NanoSIMS), there are only 30 of these instruments in the world, costing over AUD $2m each. Thanks to an ARC LIEF grant involving a collaboration between UNSW, UTS, Macquarie University, University of Western Sydney and CSIRO the very latest of another type of these instruments, a Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (TOF- SIMS), is now available in Sydney,” Dr Pernice says.
ARC LIEF grants recognise the importance that equipment, infrastructure and facilities play in supporting research undertaken by individual researchers or research teams in Australian research organisations. Installed at UNSW the TOF-SIMS is widely used in materials science but for Dr Pernice and his colleagues at UTS the biological applications for this technique are revolutionary.
“Until recently, in a sample of water, you could only study the metabolic activities of microbial communities made up of thousands of different cells and this had to be done using large sample amounts collected over wide spatial scales but not at the single cell level. This SIMS technology gives us a way into individual cells, which means we can really ‘see’ the microorganisms at the micrometer-scales over which they interact with the source of nutrients or the other organisms.”
“Twenty years ago people only saw bacteria as ‘bad guys’ but now we know that bacteria are essential, indeed beneficial for life. The expertise we are gaining at UTS using SIMS techniques is really applicable across many areas from the conservation of seagrass or coral reef ecosystems to the development of probiotics that could lead to an improvement in both animal and human health.”
There are spin offs for students as well. To use the NanoSIMS technology effectively expertise in sample preparation using Electron Microscopy is needed. UTS has excellent Electron Microscopy facilities opening up a range of collaboration possibilities for C3 research students.
To date Dr Pernice has given presentations in Perth and Melbourne with plans to visit Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney by the end of the year.
ARC LIEF LE140100032: A ToF-SIMS facility for elemental and isotopic imaging of ultra-fine features for researchers in east Australia