Professor Mark Morrison
Professor Mark Morrison
Chair of Microbial Biology and Metagenomics

 

In 2013 Professor Morrison was appointed Chair in Microbial Biology and Metagenomics at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute, which is based at the Translational Research Institute.  Here, he and his team are using DNA sequencing technologies, as well as other microbiological and genetic methods to produce new insights into the microbial world.

“When used together, microbial biology and metagenomics offer new ways to study whole communities of microbes within their natural environments, especially the crosstalk they engage in with the host” he says.
 
His team is the first of its kind in Australia to be immersed within a biomedical research environment.

From a young age, Mark Morrison had been interested in agriculture and animal health, so he set out to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine. But in his 3rd year of undergraduate studies at the University of New South Wales, he had his first experience with hands-on laboratory research and was hooked. He loved the idea of pursuing his own research, and soon a course in animal nutrition opened the door to what was to become his life’s work.

 
Morrison became fascinated by the idea that the gastrointestinal tracts of animals, including humans, are full of microbes and that they play an important role in helping the host meet nutritional needs and maintain health. Recognising the potential of this research area for improving animal health, Morrison moved to North Queensland where he enrolled at the Graduate School of Tropical Veterinary Science at James Cook University. He also began working for CSIRO.
 
“Back in the late 1980s, if you wanted to study the gut microbiota, you really had to work with animals, and in particular, livestock such as cattle and sheep,” he explains.
 
The era of recombinant DNA technology and gene cloning was just emerging, so his mentors encouraged him to do a PhD.  He spent a year working at the Veterinary Research Institute in South Africa, then began PhD studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
 
Research groups around the world were realising the potential of using the common bacterium E. coli as a vehicle for inserting and expressing genes of interest from more ‘exotic’ microbes. This methodology was revolutionising the fields of genetics and microbiology. However, a significant limitation was the lack of tools and approaches for the “knock-in” and “knock-out” study of these genes in microbes other than E. coli.
 
“My PhD research included the characterization of some of the mechanisms used by gut microbes to restrict the introduction of ‘foreign DNA’ into their cells; I also isolated some new plasmids that could be used as vectors for this type of work.”
 
Morrison then joined Professor Bob Bender’s group at the University of Michigan as a postdoc, where he investigated nitrogen regulation in the bacterium Klebsiella, an opportunistic pathogencommonly found with the human body.
 
“This was a relatively short, but important, phase in my career. It provided me with a great opportunity to expand my knowledge and interactions with biomedical scientists and persons undertaking MD/PhD programs” says Morrison.
 
Morrison went on to hold tenured faculty appointments first at the University of Nebraska, and then at The Ohio State University, receiving international acclaim for his research on anaerobic gut bacteria. In particular, he and his colleagues produced the first genome sequences for Ruminococcus and Prevotella spp. These microbial species play a key role in establishing human gut ‘enterotypes’, which are distinct microbial ecosystems that influence human health.
 
In 2006, Morrison returned to Australia to become CSIRO’s first appointment of “OCE Science Leaders” working mainly with the Gut Health stream in CSIRO’s Preventative Health Flagship research program. Shortly after, he was appointed as an adjunct Professor with the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland. From 2008, he also served as one of CSIRO’s five Capability Platform leaders in Transformational Biology.
 
In 2013 Professor Morrison was appointed Chair in Microbial Biology and Metagenomics at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute, which is based at the Translational Research Institute.  Here, he and his team are using DNA sequencing technologies, as well as other microbiological and genetic methods to produce new insights into the microbial world.
 
“When used together, microbial biology and metagenomics offer new ways to study whole communities of microbes within their natural environments, especially the crosstalk they engage in with the host” he says.
 
His team is the first of its kind in Australia to be immersed within a biomedical research environment.
 
“In addition to the state of the art facilities and equipment that UQDI provides for genomic sciences, the opportunities that come from working with some of Australia’s best scientists in immunology, cancer and genomic medicine can make a difference to what we want to do.” 
 
For Morrison, the major challenge ahead is defining whether changes in the microbiome are a cause or a consequence of disease. It’s an important distinction, and the knowledge gleaned could translate into technologies that facilitate early diagnosis of disease and more sensitive monitoring of disease progression. It could also enable the development of targeted treatments that minimise the negative effects of gut microbiota and/or boost the positive effects.   
 
For Morrison, the work is extremely rewarding.  

“My interest in science has always been influenced by wanting to do something others haven’t and for it to make a difference to people’s lives whether it be in human health, where I work now, or in veterinary sciences and agriculture.”

Email: m.morrison1@uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 3443 6957

Top 10 Publications
 

 

  • Wanted Alive not Dead: Isolation and analyses of "new" human gut bacteria
  • Bacterial mousetraps: the role of serpins in gut bacteria