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Microbiology

Mission statement VUB Research Group of Microbiology

We perform research in the field of molecular microbiology, with a three-fold mission statement:

1. Studying the lifestyle and physiology of a variety of microorganisms (archaea, extremophiles, fungi, mycorrhiza)

2. Understanding molecular mechanisms of how these microorganisms respond to changing environmental conditions (nutrition or stress)

3. Using these insights for the development of biotechnological applications in the context of a transition to a more sustainable biobased industry

 

1. Studying the lifestyle and physiology of a variety of microorganisms (archaea, extremophiles, fungi, mycorrhiza)

We have a longstanding interest in studying the physiology and metabolism of extremophilic single-celled prokaryotes thriving in extreme habitats such as volcanic hot springs. Key model organisms are the thermoacidophilic archaeon Sulfolobus acidocaldarius and the thermophilic bacterium Thermus thermophilus. Recently, this interest has been extended towards the fungal kingdom of life. We are particularly fascinated by the lifestyle of free-living filamentous fungi, but also of mycorrhiza fungi, living in symbiosis with plants by developing a specialized morphological structure. Fundamental research is aimed at a better understanding of the evolutionary adaptation of these specialized microorganisms to thriving in extreme conditions (extremophiles) or living in symbiosis with plant hosts (mycorrhiza). To this end, we both focus on model organisms in laboratory cultivations and use population genetic and genomic approaches. The latter enables the understanding of strain evolution in natural habitats.
 

2. Understanding molecular mechanisms of how these microorganisms respond to changing environmental conditions (nutrition or stress)

A fundamental research question that is being addressed is how microorganisms dynamically adapt their metabolism and physiology in response to continuously changing environmental conditions. For example, how do mycorrhiza fungi respond to unfavorable nutritional conditions and interact with their plant hosts to ensure a balanced nutritional supply? How do thermophiles adequately respond to large fluctuations in temperature, causing cellular stress, when living in a hot spring habitat? A major focus is placed on the unravelling of gene regulatory mechanisms, by thoroughly studying the function and mechanism of transcription factors. Underlying molecular mechanisms of the interaction between transcription factors and the genome are thoroughly characterized.
 

3. Using these insights for the development of biotechnological applications in the context of a transition to a more sustainable biobased industry

We don’t only want to understand how microbes live in their natural habitats but aim to use these fundamental insights in the development of applications for industrial biotechnology and agriculture. On one hand, we aim to engineer genetic and regulatory pathways to obtain microbial strains with biotechnologically useful properties such as the microbial production of biochemicals and -materials from renewable biomass. For example, well-characterized transcription factors are used in a synthetic biology approach for the engineering of synthetic genetic circuits that enable dynamically responsive and highly performant microbial cell factories. On the other hand, natural strains are used, for example for the production of mycelium materials or for the formulation of fungal inocula for the stimulation of plant growth in an agricultural context.
 

We adopt an integrated methodological approach combining genetic, genomic, biochemical and biophysical techniques and collaborate closely with other (inter-)national research groups. We are interested in performing multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary research in a variety of consortia depending on the research question that is asked or type of application that is developed.

Research

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Publications

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