Press release: Microbial Master-Chemists

Journalists sitting and writing in notepads

Discusses how humans ‘domesticated’ microbial chemistry in food production and how chemical warfare among microbes led to the evolution of antibiotics

Future uses of microbes include cleaning up radioactive materials, oil spills and microplastics

Embargo: 11 Jan 2023 7pm

We would like to invite you to a lecture by acclaimed microbiologist Professor Robin May on Microbial Master-Chemists, on 11 Jan 2023.

May, the Gresham Professor of Physic, is currently the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Birmingham.

In this lecture May will tour the hidden world of microbial chemistry. He will explore the numerous and diverse ways in which humans have been affected by this world for both good and bad, as well as how humans have harnessed the amazing powers of microbial chemistry in areas ranging from food production and medicine to waste disposal and material science.

May will start his tour of the microbial world by looking at food production and fermentation. Although humans and other larger organisms are reliant on aerobic respiration which requires oxygen, many microbes have evolved to develop alternative processes so that they can produce energy in the absence of oxygen. He will describe how many of these microbial processes have been ‘domesticated’ by humans to produce bread, beer and cheese.

On the next stop of his journey, May will look at how the world of microbial chemistry can lead to foodborne disease. These include some of the deadliest molecules known to man, such as botulinum toxin.  But many of these molecules also have important medical uses: most famously, the use of botulinum toxin to reduce wrinkles caused by ageing.

May will then move onto exploring how microbes fight to survive against one another resorting to ‘chemical warfare’ in order to survive in microbiologically-rich habitats where resources are scarce and competition fierce. As he says, however, “this battleground has yielded one of the most transformative discoveries in the history of medicine: antibiotics.” Single bacteria cells can produce complex antibiotics which to produce synthetically by humans requires energy-intensive industrial processes with highly skilled staff. “Most antibiotics are now produced at least partially synthetically in order to ensure consistency of production.  However it is somewhat humbling to realise that a process that requires distillation, condensation, purification and numerous other energy-intensive chemistry steps within large factories with highly skilled staff can be carried out faster and more efficiently within a single bacterial cell.”

How can microbes help us in future?

In the final stop on May’s tour of the hidden microbial world he will discuss the future possibilities and potential of harnessing the power of microbes to tackle a myriad of problems faced by the world today. Microbes can be used in the clean-up of radioactive material in groundwater as well as degrading petroleum in oil spills. A recently discovered bacterium has been found to have a remarkable ability to break down the microplastics found in items such as plastic drink bottles.

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of microbial material chemistry, though, lies in our ability to adapt the natural biosynthetic pathways of these organisms via genetic modification in order to create high-value chemical products.  These range from delicate fibres, such as spider silk (recently produced by genetic engineering of the marine bacterium Rhodovulum sulfidophilum) to the carbon-based ‘wonder material’ graphene, which researchers in the Netherlands have coaxed the bacterium Shewanella to produce from graphite,” May will say.



Notes to Editors

You can sign up to watch the hybrid lecture online or in person; or email us for an embargoed transcript or speak to Professor May: / 07799 738 439

Read more on Professor Robin May, microbiologist and Chief Scientific Advisor to the FSA