Our group studies how microbial communities or "microbiomes" and their life on interfaces of solid, liquid or air as "biofilms" drive the processes occurring in natural environments such as surface freshwater or plant surfaces. Members of these species share resources such as metabolites or metabolic signals and they have diverse interactions with their hosts and immediate environments, all based on ecological principles. Due to mainstreaming of next generation DNA and RNA sequencing technologies, microbial ecologists can now directly sequence DNA/RNA of these community members thus bypassing laboratory-based culturing, which can only lead to recovery of <5% of microbes in most environmental niches sampled routinely. Hence, most of our classical understanding of microbes that was based on cultured single species in free living forms, is going through a paradigm shift.
Understanding of microbiome and biofilm processes, using combination of ecological, life sciences and computational approaches can benefit different sectors, such as, agriculture, where a fraction of increase in the farm yields could result in significant increase from current levels of global food production. Plant-associated microbes can also increase resilience of crop production to environmental stresses predicted from climate change. Similarly, other applications such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving water-sensitivity in urban environments could be benefited with introduction of ecological principles-based management interventions.
In the signalling program, we have recently described the regulatory mechanism for cyclic mono phosphate(a novel cyclic nucleotide secondary messenger) in microbes. It was found that the motility regulator MorA (which is conserved in Pseudomonas) modulates intracellular messenger levels and controls phenotypes such as motility and biofilm formation. Current research focuses on the effect of secondary messengers in biofilm formation and protein secretion. This work is being carried out at the Research Centre of Excellence in Mechanobiology (RCE-Mechanobiology http://mbi.nus.edu.sg/) funded by the National Research Foundation.
Metabolites and their roles in living cells/consortium of cells is currently expanding to include plant-microbial and microbe-microbe interactions in urban freshwater systems and tropical peatlands. Projects under urban freshwater ecology are being carried out under the umbrella of Singapore-Delft Water Alliance (SDWA), Singapore Centre of Environmental Life Science Engineering (SCELSE), PUB and funded by the National Research Foundation. The tropical peat-lands project is carried out under the support of NUS Environmental Research Institute (NERI) and SDWA. We are taking a multidisciplinary approach by incorporating hydrology, meta-genomics, metabolomics, computational, and high-resolution imaging to study these interesting biological systems.