Research interests:

As an environmental microbiologist, my interests are in the adaptation of bacteria to the soil and plant environments. Research in these areas is important because the microbial community in soils and in intimate contact with plant root surfaces (the rhizosphere) are critical factors influencing soil and plant health, disease resistance and productivity. My approach is to combine aspects of molecular microbiology, microbial ecology and evolution, with the use of artificial microcosms ranging in complexity from the very simple (liquid media in glass tubes) to the more complex (repacked sieved-soil aggregates). This work is also relevant to medical and applied microbiology, as bacterial populations in these contexts also adapt causing problems with treatment, or require adaptation for efficient production or functioning.

Career history:

Mar 2007– present Reader in Environmental and Molecular Microbiology, Abertay University.

School of Science, Engineering and Technology, Microbial Ecology, Dundee, United Kingdom.

Jan 2006–Jan 2007 Senior CEH-Oxford Research Fellow Centre of Ecology and Hydrology

Oxford, United Kingdom

Jan 2002–Jan 2006 University Research Lecturer, University of Oxford

Department of Plant Sciences, Oxford, United Kingdom

Apr 1998–Dec 2001 Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford.

Department of Plant Sciences, Oxford, United Kingdom

Apr 1994–Feb 1998 Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford.

Department of Biochemistry, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Mar 1988– Mar 1993 Doctor of Philosophy in Cellular and Molecular Biology. University of Auckland.

Auckland, New Zealand

Active research projects:

Most recently, we have been using the model soil and plant-associated bacterium, Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25, to investigate the underlying molecular biology of biofilm-formation and the expression of cellulose. This understanding leads to a mechanistic explanation of the fitness advantage P. fluorescens SBW25 and other bacteria might have in producing biofilms and cellulose in a range of environments (a well-known example of cellulose matrix-based biofilm-formation is the Wrinkly Spreader mutant isolated by Paul Rainey’s group at Oxford in 1998). We have recently reviewed this work in ‘Bacterial evolution in simple microcosms’ (Spiers, 2013), ‘From Winogradsky’s column to contemporary research using bacterial microcosms’ (Moshynets et al., 2013), and ‘Cellulose expression in P. fluorescens SBW25 and other environmental pseudomonads’ (Spiers et al., in press).

Although experimental evolution studies and associated molecular investigations might seem abstract, there are close connections that can be drawn with bacterial adaptation and activity in complex environments such as soils. Recent work undertaken by members of my research group have looked at biofilm-formation, cellulose and surfactant expression amongst soil pseudomonads, as well as the impact of cellulose and surfactant expression on soil water behaviour and pore geometry (see the list of current members of my research group below; a list of all my former students is provided at the end of this page). My long-term interest is to see experimental evolution and molecular investigations moved from simple microcosms into soil or rhizosphere systems, where the real impact of bacterial sensory and response systems can be evaluated in the environments in which they evolved.

Recent publications:

Hall, J.P., Harrison, E., Lilley, A.K., Paterson, S., Spiers, A.J. and Brockhurst, M.A., (2015). Environmentally co‐occurring mercury resistance plasmids are genetically and phenotypically diverse and confer variable context‐dependent fitness effects. Environmental microbiology, 17(12), pp.5008-5022.

Abdu, H., Spiers, A., Hapca, S. and Deeni, Y., (2015). A role for glutathione and its biosynthetic genes in Anopheles gambiae insecticide resistance. Journal of Biotechnology, 208, p.S24.

Harrison, E., Guymer, D., Spiers, A.J., Paterson, S. and Brockhurst, M.A., (2015). Parallel compensatory evolution stabilizes plasmids across the parasitism-mutualism continuum. Current Biology, 25(15), pp.2034-2039.

Harrison, E., Truman, J., Wright, R., Spiers, A.J., Paterson, S. and Brockhurst, M.A., (2015). Plasmid carriage can limit bacteria–phage coevolution. Biology letters, 11(8), p.20150361.

Harrison, E., Wood, A.J., Dytham, C., Pitchford, J.W., Truman, J., Spiers, A., Paterson, S. and Brockhurst, M.A., (2015). Bacteriophages limit the existence conditions for conjugative plasmids. MBio, 6(3), pp.e00586-15.