Unearthing the secrets of soil microbiology

Unearthing the secrets of soil microbiology

La Trobe soil microbial ecologist Dr Jen Wood is a leader in her field. Recently shortlisted in the 2020 Nature Research Awards for Inspiring and Innovating Science, she’s passionately paving the way for more female scientists to prosper in their careers.

But she trod an unconventional path to get to where she is today — commencing her studies in Fine Arts before focusing her scientific career on unearthing the secrets of the soil microbiome. She credits La Trobe for being one of the few universities to ‘take a chance’ on her.

Today, she’s co-laboratory Head of our Applied and Environmental Microbiology group, investigating the interactions between soil microbiology, plants, climate and management practices to better understand the role of microbes in soil and ecosystem health – impactful research which has the potential to improve agricultural practices, global food security and conservation practices across the board.

Discover what prompted her to pivot in her postgraduate journey from Fine Arts to trailblazing life sciences research, uncovering the secrets of soil microbial communities.

The remarkable world of soil microbes 

In the microbiology department, you hear about people working with really remarkable microbes, like electric breathing bacteria.

My role in the lab is actually not to work with just one or even a couple of microbes that are interesting, but to work with an entire microbial community and ask — what can we do with the community that’s really remarkable?

One of the amazing things soil microbial communities can do is called phytoremediation, which is using special plants that can ‘suck up’ large amounts of heavy metals to clean up the environment. So, my PhD was about looking at the soil microbial community and asking how we can get it to work with the plant to improve phytoextraction.

Plants and microbes working together 

We’ve known about microbes and plants working together for decades. But the ability to look at microbial communities the way I’m doing in my research has only been around for about ten years, which is a tiny blip in science terms.

Phytoextraction is biotechnology with lots of really beautiful outcomes. We’re talking about cleaning up heavy metal contamination.

This is important because heavy metals don’t degrade in the soil and they are toxic to humans. Mining, landfills and some agricultural activities can all lead to heavy metal contamination of our land.

If we want to use that land to do more agriculture, or to set up a conservation reserve or even build our homes on it, it’s really important we get the heavy metals out before we do that.

La Trobe's Jen Wood and Dr Ashley Franks
Dr Ashley Franks and Jen Wood

If we can unlock the secret of getting soil microbes to improve plant health, we can improve plant growth and yield. That’s a big step towards global food security. In countries where they can’t afford chemical fertilisers, it might even be a step away from poverty and famine because using the soil biology to improve yield potentially isn’t going to cost farmers much.

Unlocking the super powers of soil microbiology

Microbiologists have only been looking at soil communities in this holistic way for about ten years and mostly what we learnt is that there’s an incredible amount of diversity and so much still to learn.

We’re just at the tipping point, moving into the next phase. There’s a way to go, but I think this field will advance rapidly.

Following a passion for plant life

My dirty secret is that I never studied microbiology in my undergraduate degree.

I’m a plant person, which is why I like dirt and soil and microbiology.

What I’ve always loved in plant science and ecology is interactions between organisms. When I finally realised that microorganisms were the basis of these plant micro-interactions and interactions within micro-communities that’s what really drew me in.

Transitioning towards microbiology

My first degree was in Fine Arts. I wasn’t very good at being an artist. I came to La Trobe as a mature-age student with the intention to transfer into a vet course. I ended up staying at La Trobe, however, mostly because I was inspired and encouraged by the lecturers I met.

I majored in plant biology and did my Honours in biochemistry. I’d heard about Dr Ashley Frank’s lab and, at the end of my Honours year, I emailed him not knowing if he’d be interested in taking [me on]. I felt very supported from the very beginning. I would say that’s been my experience throughout my undergrad too. My partner also did his undergraduate and PhD in Mathematics at La Trobe.

Neither of us would be doing what we love if it wasn’t for La Trobe because they took a chance on us.

We didn’t do the right prerequisites all those years ago, when we were 18. We both came back as mature age students and La Trobe was one of the few unis that said ‘come and prove yourself and we’ll let you in’.’

Supporting women in science 

Have you heard of ‘the leaky pipeline’? If you take all of the science cohorts together, there’s about a 50/50 even split of women and men at the student and even PhD level. When they enter a research career, however, the number of women drops rapidly until you get to the high level professors where’s there’s only about one in five women. So, we have all these women start studying science and then, where do they all go?

My microbiology colleague Lara Bereza-Malcolm and I co-founded the La Trobe Supporting Women in Science Society (SWIS) to promote gender equity and a support network for female students among the PhD cohort because they’re the ones about to step into this pipeline.

Discover where a Science degree can take you.