Microbial communities in the environment

We focus on the study of the structure and function of microbial communities in the environment. Our research spans from basic fundamental understanding to applied real world applications.

We use a broad range of techniques to provide mechanistic understanding of microbial driven natural processes fundamental to ecosystem function, agriculture, health, biotechnology, bioremediation and bioenergy.

Our research base is spread globally through a number of international collaborations.

Current projects

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electrogenic community dynamics in anode biofilms

Microbial fuel cell (MFC) technologies can be utilized for a range of new and diverse applications such as environmental remediation,  wastewater treatment, synthesis of biofuels and the supply of energy.

How  bacteria compete in this environment is not well understood. We aim to  study the competition dynamics between different bacteria that have evolved a range of strategies to deposit electrons  onto the anode of a MFC. We can visualize competition taking place on the anode by using bacteria that have been transformed  to emit florescent signals, microscopy, qPCR and 2-chambered MFCs to quantify changes in electrical output.

Phytoextraction and the influence of soil microorganisms

Phytoextraction is a low-cost, low-labour-intensive green technology that utilizes plants to extract heavy metals from contaminated soil however,  phytoextraction is not yet efficient enough to be considered economically viable.

Plant-microbe interactions have been shown to improve the rate of heavy metal accumulation in plants, and so present a viable avenue for further research into improving phytoextraction. Many studies demonstrate improvements in heavy metal-phytoextraction following inoculation of the rhizosphere with  a single microbial species or a consortium of microorganisms.

The microbial processes being pursued to enhance phytoextraction can affect either the solubility of the metals in the soil, (via siderophore, organic acid or biosurfactant production) or promote the growth of the plant (via indole-3-acetic (IAA) or 1-amino-1-cyclopropanoic acid (ACC) deaminase production or the release of growth limiting nutrients from the soil). However, to date little progress has been made to elucidate which of these processes have the greatest impact on phytoextraction efficiency.

Synthetic biology

Creation of novel synthetic biological parts for bioremediation

This research project, in association with the Defence Science Institute, uses standard biological parts to design new components and create microbial biosensors for the detection of heavy metals in  the environment. The components of the synthetic biological sensors will be tested in a range of microbial chassis and include light, pigment, fluorescence  and electrical output by the microbes.  These biosensors not only have potential  in environmental sensing but will also broaden the availability of microbial chassis available to the synthetic biology community.

Understanding community ecology and waste-water

Sewer pipes perform an essential role in that they contain and transport liquid waste away from where the waste is produced. This fact is probably not something that is of note today however, society suffered severe disease out brakes and ill health when waste was disposed into the nearest watercourse or thrown onto the street.

The functioning sewer is reliant on a number of factors one of those is the rate of flow. When concrete sewer pipes become corroded the rate of flow is impeded which results in blockages. Corrosion of the sewer pipes also affects the integrity of the pipe leading to micro-cracking and in some instances pipe collapse.

One of the major causes of concrete sewer pipe corrosion is the result of bacterial driven sulfur cycling known as biogenic corrosion. Understanding these microbial communities - how they function and interactions within them - can further our understanding of biogenic corrosion and how to curtail it.

Microbial Sulfur Cycling

Bacteria are fundamental to biogeochemical processes such as the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and iron. The driving forces of evolution have lead to a diversity of strategies used by bacteria to gain and conserve energy through interacting with the elements present in the environment. To contribute to the understanding of the bacterial role in biogeochemical cycling - in particular sulfur cycling -  the Franks lab employ Microbial Fuel Cell technology or electromicrobiology.

Rainforests: Ecology & Microbe Mining

Do plant-microbe interactions contribute to rainforest diversity?

Rainforests support an unprecedented number of dominant tree species - where many ecosystems support one or two major tree species, rainforests can support up to 400 per hectare. Understanding how so many species can coexist in one environment, without one ever coming to dominate  or out-compete its neighbours, is a fundamental question  in rainforest ecology. Davies Creek in FNQ has never been logged and is a unique resource for ecological inquiry as it has 50 years of plant demographic data associated with it (painstakingly collected by committed teams of ecologists and volunteer students since the plot was first mapped by Joseph Connell in 1963). Now, in collaboration with community ecologist Dr Peter Green, we ask: 'Can soil microorganisms contribute to the germination patterns of some tree species  - do these relationships assist in maintaining rainforest diversity?'

Gut-Brain intereactions

The microbes that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract can have major implications not only for health, but also the development and function during development and growth of an organism. Microbes in the gut are able to directly interact with the central nervous system. The role of gut microbes in the severity of different neurological disorders and behavioral defects is being investigated through studies of the structure and function of the human and relevant model microbiomes.

Please include 2-3 high resolution images that may be used that are reflective of your research. These can include photos, schematic diagrams, micrographs etc.

Team members

  • Research Leader: Associate Professor Ashley Franks
  • Postdocs: Jen Wood, Lucie Semenec, Cesar Guzman
  • PhDs: Elizabeth Mathews, Corinne Celestina, Gene Drendel, Anya Shindler
  • Honours: Joshua Vido