Surveys have shown one third of Kiwis think science is too specialised to understand. In this series, scientists who tackle mind-bogglingly complex problems each day make it simple for us. Today, we talk to Massey University microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson

How would you describe what you do to a peer at a conference?

My laboratory has two primary directions.

The first of these is an investigation into the evolution of cell shape in bacteria.


Phylogenetic analysis suggests that bacteria have evolved from an ancestral rod-like cell shape.

Bacteria that are spherical - Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Deinococcus - have uniformally lost one gene; Mreb, the ancient actin homolog.

My lab has a rod-like strain that is uniquely able to withstand the deletion of this essential protein and become spherical.

We have experimentally evolved these bacteria and are studying both how and why bacteria become spherical in the first place.

The second half of our research focuses on the discovery and biology of bacteriophages for Lactocococus, Mycobacterium, Pseudomonas and Paenibacillus.

And then how would you introduce yourself to a stranger at a barbecue?

I am a microbiologist who works on evolution.

It's really fun.


If pressed?

My lab works on how and why bacteria evolve the shapes that they have.

Some people in my lab hunt for phages, the viruses that kill bacteria.

We have viruses for lots of different types of bacteria but the newest project is to find phages that can help save honey bees.

I also take my undergraduate students at Massey on a phage hunt for a class.

What project or projects are you currently working on at the moment and what's involved?

Over the summer we are getting into a new project where we will find bacteriophages that kill the bee pathogen that causes American foulbrood.

If we can find native New Zealand phages for this bacterium we can use them as a standing army in clean hives to protect the hives from becoming infected.

I have a summer student who will be hunting for these bacteriophages.

I love the project because bees are so important to pollination and sustainable food production.

What are the trickiest questions facing your field and why is solving them so difficult?

Microbiology is central to life.

The more we look the more we see that all living things are completely covered and filled with bacteria that are positively - and on rare occasions negatively - affecting health.

You, me, cattle, bees, orchards and river ... everything is a product of interactions with invisible microbes.

But we can't see all of these unsung microscopic heroes.

Bacteriophages are a prime example.

They represent a huge untapped resource for solving modern problems but they are not well known by the public, doctors or even scientists.

We need to get out there, find the ones we can use and harness their potential.

What do you feel are the most interesting or fascinating aspects of your field?

I love genetics and evolution.

The idea that we can figure out how random mutations in DNA are selected over time to build the living world around us is completely thrilling to me.

For example, we can evolve bacteria in the lab in a matter of days and sequence the resulting bacteria to figure out what mutations made them better and what the trade-offs were.

The potential for understanding how life happens using these simple tools is incredible.

Why do you think the work is important and what could it help us understand?

Microbiology is the study of the organisms that built the world we are living on.

From the oxygen we breathe to the nitrogen and carbon we rely on to build our own bodies, these elements only exist in the forms that they do today because bacteria have recycled them and continue to recycle them.

They are critically important from an environmental perspective and yet we understand next to nothing about their diversity, their roles in complex systems and the evolutionary pressures they face.

Microbiology rules.

The viruses of bacteria, the bacteriophages, are 10 times as numerous as the bacteria and we have barely scratched the surface of their diversity.

They are the ultimate puppet masters when it comes to bacterial survival; they are all over our bodies, in our guts and everywhere in the world around us but most people don't even know they exist.

If you are reading this and you are not already a microbiologist, what are you doing with all of your time?