An interview with Professor André Antunes

April 2020

André Antunes is an Associate Professor at the China’s first State Key Laboratory of Lunar and Planetary Sciences, recently established at Macau University of Science and Technology, and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview, he tells us more about his research in the field of marine and extreme environments.

André Antunes
© André Antunes

Tell us more about your research.

My research revolves around the discovery of microbial groups completely unknown to science and uncovering their characteristics, coping mechanisms for thriving under extreme settings, and potential biotechnological applications. I have specialised in microbiology of marine and extreme environments and have had the opportunity to participate and lead several scientific expeditions to some of the most extreme locations known on our planet, from salt mines in the UK, to abandoned coastal salterns in Africa, to exotic deep-sea brines at the bottom of the Red Sea. Some of the environments that I work with combine multiple extremes and are so harsh that were considered to be sterile until a few years ago.

Why does researching microbes in extreme environments matter?

Microbes are the dominant organisms on Earth, yet we have only been able to study less than 1% of the total species estimated to exist. The isolation and description of new species is vital in order to understand the diversity of life as well as the role and full impact of microbes on our planet. The study of extreme environments is particularly relevant as a major source of new biomolecules and new applications for biotechnology. Microbes are increasingly seen as the solution to society’s biggest issues. How to feed, fuel, and heal the world.

How is your research linked to life on other planets?

My research on microbiology and the study of extreme environments is also heavily linked with space exploration and astrobiology. This is a relatively recent cross-disciplinary research field that brings together bio-, geo-, and planetary-scientists and studies the possible existence of life outside our own planet). The exploration of selected extreme environments on Earth which closely match conditions present on other parts of our solar system (terrestrial analogues) is seen as particularly important for preparing future space missions. Likewise, the persistence of microbes in clean rooms used up for assembling space probes is a major issue. Special care needs to be taken in order to comply with planetary protection measures to avoid potential contamination of other worlds.

Why does microbiology matter?

Several microbes have been shown to be able to survive space travel which could compromise the success of space missions looking for life and might cause the collapse of alien ecosystems before we even know they are there.

My research on extreme environments allows me to contribute to clarifying the resilience of life and defining its limits. From a more philosophical perspective, my area of research allows me to help in finding an answer to the most important question that mankind has ever asked: Are we alone in the Universe?

Where did your interest in microbiology come from?

My interest in microbiology came from a lecture where I heard about microbes in extreme environments and the discovery of archaea. I was in awe to hear how resilient and diverse life was and couldn’t believe how much of it remained unexplored. It was love at first sight and I never looked back! Nothing beats the feeling of being the first researcher to sample a remote, extreme environment or being the first person to isolate an exotic new microbial species!

What is a typical working day for you?

I don’t think I really have a typical day, which is one of the perks of the job. My current work has a combination of research, teaching, and administration. The best part of it is going on field activities, with sampling in the most amazing locations across the globe (which range from derelict salterns in Cape Verde, to the arid Tibetan Plateau, to the bottom of the Red Sea, to salt mines in the exotic Cheshire Salt District). I’m no longer as active in the lab-front, so end up being more involved in project planning and supervision (which involve trying to stay up to date on the latest developments in my field, writing grants, setting up collaborative efforts with international partners, and paper writing).

Although it’s a great responsibility – I love teaching! – I think it’s truly amazing to have the opportunity to promote microbiology and help to inspire and train the next generation of researchers.

In my current role as director for the Astrobiology Group, I do end up having a bigger share of paperwork, reports and meetings than I used to, but I actually enjoy most of it. The silver-lining of this extra work is that I now play an active role in defining and implementing the development strategy of my current institution.

What are the most important skills you need for your current role?

Passion, perseverance, curiosity, and flexibility. I think this is valid for any field of research: you need to love what you do, be naturally curious, and follow the opportunities that come along. Being a good communicator (and a good listener) also takes you a long way!

What are the professional challenges that present themselves and how do you try to overcome them?

It is important not to get discouraged, or let other group members do so, when a paper or a grant is rejected or even when experiments fail. I recommend celebrating successes, and promoting an open, friendly atmosphere within the group with regular social activities outside the university. It isn’t always easy to manage people from different cultures, backgrounds, and widely divergent expectations, but creating that team/family-spirit makes everything much easier and enjoyable for all.

Why is it important to belong to organisations like the Microbiology Society?

I’m a big fan of the Microbiology Society and believe that membership is relevant for researchers at all stages of their career. Being a member allows me to reach a wider audience and increase the visibility of my research; network with fellow researchers in my field, but also learn new things from different areas. I like the fact that the Society is very supportive with its variety of research and travel grants and can’t praise them enough.

I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to help the Society to represent the full diversity of research in microbiology and make sure that your voice is heard. After complaining for two years about under-representation of some research fields at the Annual Conference (during its several coffee breaks), I decided to do something about it. I proposed a topic for the next edition, which was readily approved, and that’s how I ended up as a convener for a session in the following year.

You are a member of the Communications Committee, tell us a little about what is involved?

The Committee is involved in all outward communications of the Society and formally meets twice a year. It is a great responsibility, as we’re in charge of the most visible aspects of the Society. I moved to the other side of the globe shortly after being elected, which has prevented me from physically attending some of the last meetings. Despite this, I’m particularly enjoying being involved in defining the main topics to be highlighted in Microbiology Today, and ensuring the visibility and representation of different research areas.

What would your advice be for other members thinking about how they might be able to get more involved with Society activities?

Be proactive! Don’t be shy, and just send an e-mail or chat with someone at the Annual Conference! I’ve been a member of different societies before but feel that the Microbiology Society is particularly welcoming. Despite its size, it frequently feels like a big family! Previous conferences have even had some special sessions showcasing what type of work is done at each committee, and I strongly recommend people to check them out. That’s how I ended up joining one the committees!

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].