Laura Villanueva appointed professor in Marine Microbiology

Utrecht University has appointed microbiologist Laura Villanueva as professor of Marine Microbiology. This makes her the very first professor with this chair in Utrecht. “I very much look forward to add some ‘sea’ to microbiology in Utrecht, and also to add some biology to Marine Sciences at our university.”

Prof. Laura Villanueva (Photo: <JNSN> | John Cluderay)

Knowing what influence microbes have on our climate and, also knowing how microbes are such an integral part of marine biodiversity, Laura Villanueva calls it ‘high time’ this field was honored with a special chair.

“Microbes are key in, for example, the production of the strong greenhouse gasses”, Villanueva says. “This production is likely to increase, knowing that microbes produce these gasses in conditions without oxygen. Due to various factors, the zones without oxygen in coastal waters are increasing too. Therefore, marine microbes are becoming ever more important in the puzzle of climate change.”

Mitigating climate

On the same token, marine microbes may play their part in mitigating climate change as well, Villanueva stresses. “Under the right circumstances, certain microbes eat for example methane, just as they may eat carbon dioxide or nitrous oxides that are strong greenhouse gasses too. If we ever want to actively use these microbes in fighting climate change, we better study them first.”

Study of the skin

Much of the practical research Villanueva does, evolves around the membranes of bacteria and also of archaea, sometimes dubbed ‘ancient bacteria’. “By studying the membranes of these microbes, we hope to understand how they react to their environment. Just like our environment leaves a mark on our skin, this happens in microbes too. Therefore, studying the skin of fossil microbes that have lived under extreme conditions, may tell us a bit about how bacteria will respond to our changing climate as well.”

We will renovate the curriculum of Marine Sciences, making it a more comprehensive marine biology study area.

In addition to her appointment at Utrecht University, Villanueva is affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), as head of the Department of Microbiology & Biogeochemistry. As a professor, she will also teach Marine Sciences. “Currently, there is hardly any biology yet in Marine Sciences at our university”, says Villanueva. “Together with my colleagues, we will therefore renovate the curriculum of Marine sciences, making it a more comprehensive marine biology study area.”

The colours and smell of the sea

Villanueva has held a position as associate professor at Utrecht University for the past three years already. “I particularly enjoy the teaching and mentoring of students, maybe even more than I like doing actual research myself”, she half-jokingly adds.

It’s all about inspiring young scientists for this fascinating field of research

“It’s all about inspiring young scientists for this fascinating field of research. And mind you, I find that relatively easy. If you can show how one drop of sea water contains millions of microbes and even a multiple number of viruses, you almost automatically get the attention of the students. Especially in The Netherlands, marine microbiology is all around you. You can even see it in the colours and the smell of the sea. If you then realize how pivotal these microbes are in our climate and our biodiversity, I can only be super proud to be the first professor on this chair in Utrecht.”