Deciphering the Mysterious Messages of Marine Biofilm

Marine biofilm, a mysterious habitat to thousands of bacteria, algae and other micro-organisms that are able to communicate with one another using chemical signals in what is known as quorum sensing. It is the composition of biofilm that possesses numerous and eclectic potential applications – from dictating the behavior and ultimate settlement of benthic marine organisms, to breakthroughs for antibiotic resistance research. 

Behind the discoveries of biofilm applications is Prof Peiyuan Qian, a pioneer in the study of the dynamics of marine biofilm and their chemical interactions. His groundbreaking research, based on the advances in big data sequencing technology, has resulted in two contrasting implications. By manipulating the composition of marine biofilm, he has been able to engineer environmentally friendly anti-fouling agents that fend off undesired benthic organisms such as barnacles, that cost the shipping industry tens of billions of dollars each year. In contrast, aquaculture farmers who welcome the settlement of benthic larvae, such as abalone and oysters, require the knowledge of the type of biofilm which will attract marine organisms. 

His vast knowledge on biofilm has led to spin-off discoveries away from the seas and onto land. He has adapted his novel methodology to rapidly screen compounds in biofilm for wider natural product research, resulting in new understanding of how bacteria can mutate to develop enzymes capable of breaking down antibiotics. Such understanding reveals the pathway that leads to antibiotic resistance.  

Prof Peiyuan Qian is Acting Head and Chair Professor of the Department of Ocean Science, and David von Hansemann Professor of Science. He is the 2016 recipient of the State Natural Science Award, Second Class, and holds 13 patents from the US, EU, China and Hong Kong. He has also won numerous best paper awards at international conferences. 

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