Pushing the frontiers of science

Dr Debnath Ghosal (Dept of Biochemistry and Pharmacology) and team have been awarded a prestigious international grant to continue their world-leading research into the mysteries of life’s third domain.

The US$1.5 million Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) grant will enable Dr Ghosal, a Senior Lecturer and NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow at the Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute, to pursue vital blue-sky research on archaeal cell biology, symbiosis and evolution.

HFSP grants are awarded through a highly competitive and rigorous program of assessment and the global success rate of applicants is only ~5 per cent. The funding is specifically designed to support interdisciplinary, explorative and collaborative research across different countries and areas of expertise.

“This third domain of life, archaea, has existed for billions of years but we never knew about these tiny life forms until 1977. We still know very little about them although they are everywhere,” says Dr Debnath Ghosal, who has extensive experience microbiology, biochemistry, and structural biology (specifically, in cryo-EM).

To further global understanding of archaea cells, their key role in our evolution, and their precise makeup, function and potential, Dr Ghosal is joined by Dr Tessa Quax from the Department of Molecular Microbiology at Groningen University in The Netherlands, Dr Benjamin Good from Stanford University’s Department of Applied Physics, and Dr Hiroyuki Sakai at Soka University in Japan.

We know archaea are our direct ancestors and they have many of the cellular features and signatures that define us as humans, so it’s very important to understand how they came to be, their features and how we evolved from this unicellular life form.

We want to understand the basic evolutionary aspect, the role of archaea in our health and, finally, there are massive implications for biotechnology because archaeal cells are found in extreme environments, such as in Antarctic ice and hot springs. Surviving in those diverse environments means the enzymes and proteins inside archaeal cells must be stable in extreme temperatures. Many of these enzymes could hold future promises in biotechnology.

Before joining the University of Melbourne, Dr Ghosal spent five years in the UK in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge where he completed his PhD. He then undertook postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology in the US before relocating to the University of Melbourne in March 2020.

It was during his tenure in the US that Dr Ghosal became fascinated by archaeal cells and the mystery that surrounds them.

“We know very little about this third domain of life and their implications for our health. There is huge potential to uncover many new things. We are starting this journey and we don’t know how long it will take or where we will arrive but the HFSP grant will help us pursue our research more aggressively for the next three years. I am super excited about the discoveries that lie ahead.” says Dr Ghosal.

Read more about Dr Ghosal