Research Fellows Directory
Dr Rosalind Allen
University of Edinburgh
Microbes are key to understanding where life came from, and may also be key to where life on Earth is going to. Microbes are apparently primitive, single-celled living organisms, invisible to the naked eye, but essential to the way our planet functions. This is because many of the most important chemical transformations that keep our planet functioning rely on microbes. An important example is the sulphur cycle: the chemical element sulphur is transformed from its reduced form, sulphide, to its oxidized form, sulphate, in the oceans, and gets transformed back to sulphate by sulphur-reducing microbes in the ocean sediments. Because these microbes consume hydrogen, which is a waste product of organic matter degradation, they are actually responsible for the release of huge amounts of carbon (perhaps 50% of the total released from organic matter): with enormous implications for climate change. In my research, I use laboratory model systems made from pond sediment and water to understand these processes better. I also develop theoretical models which I use to predict what will happen in my experiments.
I am also interested in understanding how microbes organise themselves into complex communities. Most microbes live on surfaces (eg the wall of our gut, or on particles of "marine snow" in the ocean), where they grow into communities with distinct structures that are not as yet well understood. I am using experiments on model surfaces (made of a porous gel material) to watch spatial organization develop in microbial populations. At the same time, I am using computer simulations to predict what factors are key to understanding what kind structure a microbial community will form. This research may one day help us to design surfaces (eg to line pipes or coat surgical implants) that are resistant to microbial colonization; or even to design targeted microbial communities that can perform specific, useful tasks.
Interests and expertise (Subject groups)