Professor Sloan’s expertise is in the microbial ecology of engineered biological systems for waste treatment, energy production and resource recovery. He has developed mathematical models for the assembly of complex microbial communities that help to explain microbial diversity and dynamics in a wide range of different communities. The process of genetically modifying microorganism entails overriding the genetic code that has been optimised by evolution and hence there must be an effect on the fitness of the organisms. Thus, where genetically modified organisms are introduced to mixed communities of microorganisms, either deliberately to effect change in a process, or by accident, it is imperative that we can quantify their dynamics and persistence. Professor Sloan, in collaboration with Dr Rosser, is adapting his community assembly models in the light of careful experiments to quantify the dynamics of genetically modified organisms when they compete in open microbial communities.
We are using synthetic organisms to test new theories on the way that microbial communities assemble themselves. As part of an EPSRC funded project we have created strains of bacteria with highly tuneable growth rates and yield. By constructing artificial open communities comprising these strains and monitoring strain abundance we have been able to quantify the effects of, for example, differing fitness and immigration on the population dynamics. The models will ultimately allow us to predict the probability of synthetic organisms competing and persisting in a community and thus design them accordingly. We are also investigating the evolution of synthetic organisms. The research is motivated by the prospect of synthetic organisms being used in environmental biotechnologies.
Collaborators: Prof Susan Rosser (Edinburgh), Prof Tom Curtis (Newcastle) and Dr Mary Lunn (Oxford).