Make way for the microbes?

Botanical Congress, Media releases

Our civilisation is built on plants – they provide food, shelter, fuel and medicine.

Can we rely on them in the future? Or will it be the era of the microbes.

For the whole of human history, we have relied on plants as the basis for satisfying the bulk our food, fibre and fuel needs—but are we about to enter a Brave New World where microbes will share the load?

  • Should we be growing our future biofuels as crops and trees, or as microalgae?
  • Will future biomaterials be formed in tobacco leaves or bacteria?
  • And should we genetically modify crops to make them more nutritious, or add supplements produced in and extracted from microbes?

That’s the issue Robyn Williams will tackle today in a lunchtime public discussion entitled Brave New World: can we solve tomorrow’s environmental and energy problems by using life itself? to be held at the International Botanical Conference at 12.30 pm at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

“Plants feed us and nature sustains us, but could microorganisms give us a bigger bang for our buck?” says ABC science broadcaster, Robyn Williams who is moderating the debate.

Much of our environmental research and investment goes into studying and conserving relatively few multicellular organisms and ecosystems. Research on the rest of life focuses mostly on controlling harmful microorganisms, rather than working with useful ones.

Perhaps it is now time to put our money into harnessing microbes to convert significant amounts of carbon dioxide into biomass and biofuels thereby helping to slow climate change.

The discussion panel will include four eminent scientists—two botanists supporting the plants and two microbiologists for the microbes.

For the plants:

  • Prof. David Mabberley, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK; soon to be Executive Director of Sydney’s Botanic Gardens Trust
  • Dr Kevin Thiele, Curator Western Australia Herbarium

Speaking for the microbes:

  • Dr Jeff Powell, Microbial ecologist and lecturer, University of Western Sydney
  • Assoc. Prof. Kirsten Heimann, Cell biologist and biofuels expert, James Cook University

Supported by Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, Sydney, Australia and coordinated by Janelle Hatherly, Manager Public Programs. Any enquires

Congress media contact: Niall Byrne on 0417 131 977, or AJ Epstein on 0433 339 141 or email We’ll be in the Media Room (214 from 8:30am Monday 25 July).