Your work focuses on microbial metagenomics. What gets you excited about this field?
Access. Access to the vast microbial unknown that surrounds and resides within us. There is so much yet to discover with so many new and improved tools; it feels like being in a gold rush, and everyone is excited by a gold rush.
In a 2010 paper, you and your colleagues found that massively parallel pyrosequencing might generate spurious phylotypes. This raises the specter that at least some of the "rare biosphere", organisms identified by the presence of their rRNA sequences, is actually attributable to sequence artifacts. Did the paper rock the boat a bit in the world of microbial ecology?
I think a number of groups were heading towards the same finding, but I have been surprised by the response to the paper. I attribute that partly to my co-authors; Howard Ochman’s catchy title–“Wrinkles in the rare biosphere” and the simplicity of the experiment proposed by Victor Kunin—to profile E.coli in isolation. I think it’s now well established that methodological precautions need to be taken to avoid generating a rare bogusphere, but the power of the method vastly outweighs the caveats and there is certainly a bona fide rare biosphere out there.
You completed your undergraduate work, grad work, and a postdoc in Australia, then went on to a career in the U.S. for many years. Now you're back in Australia as Director of the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics. What motivated your move back down under?
I have many indelible memories of working in the US with great mentors and colleagues, in particular Norman Pace and Nikos Kyrpides, but it seemed like the right time to return home. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to head up a new center at the University of Queensland and work with my longtime collaborator Gene Tyson again. There’s also a lot of emerging talent in the ‘omics area in Queensland that is being fueled by the democratization of high throughput sequencing. Also, my entire education up to and including the Ph.D. was paid for by the Australian government and I’m very happy that I can now pay back into the system that supported me so well. Finally, all of my and my wife’s extended family live in Brisbane, so our kids now have grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins close by for the first time.
Where do you see your field in 10 years?
Hopefully microbial ecology will be heavily into the predictive phase by then and we will be able to predict the behavior of quite complex communities and perhaps even recreate them synthetically. As for microbial evolution, I expect to see the microbial tree of life in its full genomic glory, unfettered by cultivation bias. Finding a fourth domain of life or evidence of a shadow biosphere (home-grown alien microbial life!) would be a great bonus.
If you had to change careers today and you could do anything, what would you do?
Something creative in the visual arts. I’m particularly drawn to scientific animation like the amazing to-scale work of Drew Berry at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. But really, I’m with E.O. Wilson on this, microbial ecology is the place to be, and I would avoid a career change like the plague.
What’s your favorite science book?
Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology. Some people find it a bit dry, but once you get past the first 1000 pages it’s a riveting read full of intrigue and suspense.
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
I got an A in vocal studies from the prestigious School of Music at Indiana University when I was doing a postdoc there. My teacher said I had made significant progress from “god-awful” to “terrible”. Clearly some undiscovered talent there.