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I obtained my PhD degree in 1993 from the State Key Laboratories of Agricultural Microbiology (Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan, China). In 1997, I was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship and have performed research on soil microbial ecology for two years in RWTH (Aachen, Germany). Then I spent 3 years at the University of Oxford (Oxford, UK) working as a post-doctor at the Department of Plant Sciences. I came to New Zealand at the beginning of 2003, and firstly worked in the School of Biological Sciences, the University of Auckland, and then relocated to Massey University at Albany in 2007.
I am a microbiologist currently working in the fields of bacterial molecular genetics, bacterial pathogenicity, experimental evolution, and the ecology of microbial communities in the soil. I have strong research interests to develop new strategies that can help prevent bacterial infectious diseases of plants as well as humans.
My research focuses on bacterial adaptation to their natural environments, such as soil and eukaryotic hosts. Specifically, modern tools in molecular biology are used to elucidate the genetic and physiological responses of bacteria to the environment, aiming to provide insights into the nature of the complex environment itself. The work is largely performed in a model organism of Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25 (a plant growth-promoting bacterium) and was recently extended to pathogenic bacteria of plants and humans, and the microbial communities in the soil.
The microbiological research performed in my lab range from molecular biology to ecology and evolution. The molecular biology work has been focused on the genetic characterization of genes involved in nutrients acquisition, and the research was supported by a Marsden Fund grant of the Royal Society of New Zealand (2006-2010). My experimental evolution work uses the fast-growing bacterium as a model system, whereby some important questions in biological evolution have been addressed. These include the evolutionary mechanisms of cooperation (and cheating), bet hedging, the roles of immigration in biological diversification, and the effects of genetic constraints on evolutionary trajectories. Moreover, I have been actively involved in ecological research on the dynamic changes of soil microbial community in response to climate changes.
With the widespread increase of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, new strategies to prevent and treat healthcare-associated infections are urgently required. Two projects in my lab are targeting infectious diseases of humans. One project focuses on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an environmental pathogen that causes a wide range of healthcare-associated infections and pulmonary infections in people with chronic lung diseases, particularly cystic fibrosis (CF). We are testing a new hypothesis that urocanate, a histidine metabolite, accumulates in human tissues and acts as a signalling molecule that initiates bacterial infection. Results from this project will define the mechanism used by P. aeruginosa to identify susceptible host tissues and express pathogenicity traits at the correct time and place. This knowledge will form a basis for the development of new strategies to prevent bacterial infectious diseases. Specifically, analogues of urocanate or inhibitors of the bacterial receptor have the potential to interrupt the normal process of host recognition, and thus prevent bacterial infection.
The other project aims to reduce the rate of hospital-associated infections (HAI), which currently affect ~10% of hospitalised patients in New Zealand public hospitals. We are exploring a novel strategy in preventing HAI, which involves the use of self-sanitising copper-containing surfaces on items commonly touched in hospitals, and provide sustained protection against microbial contamination. More specifically, we perform experiments that can help increase our understanding of rapid bacterial killing on metallic copper and the potential of pathogens to develop resistance.
21st Century Citizenship, Resource Development and Management, Health and Well-being
Field of research codes
Biogeography and Phylogeography (060302): Biological Sciences (060000): Community Ecology (060202): Ecology (060200): Evolutionary Biology (060300): Evolutionary Impacts of Climate Change (060306): Gene Expression (incl. Microarray and other genome-wide approaches) (060405): Genetics (060400): Host-Parasite Interactions (060307): Infectious Agents (060502): Microbial Genetics (060503): Microbiology (060500)
Microbiology, Experimental Evolution, Microbial Ecology, Bacterial Genetics
I am coordiating two papers 122.231 (Genes and Gene Expression) and 203.342 (Molecular and cellular Biology), and also invovled in the teaching of 162.214 (Biology of Microorganisms) and 246.302 (Research Themes in Natural Sciences)