The lead academic in a major research project which aims to improve our understanding of how microorganisms survive has joined the University of Lincoln, UK.

Stuart Humphries, Professor in Evolutionary Bio-Physics, will be a senior academic figure within the School of Life Sciences’ Evolution and Ecology research group.

Professor Humphries was awarded £941,132 from the Leverhulme Trust in 2012 to investigate the influence of cell shape on ecology.

It is hoped the results of this five-year project will lay the foundations for future advances in fields such microbial ecology, biosecurity, medical microbiology and ocean ecosystem dynamics.

Professor Humphries said: “Despite the importance of microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, to our health, culture, agriculture and industrial processes we still have no real idea of why microorganisms look the way they do. An example is that cells in our immune system seem to respond to differently shaped microbes and bacteria. If we can find out how this happens it could eventually assist with medical diagnostics.”

At microscopic scales, organisms are largely freed from the limitations set by physical processes. This release from physical constraints means that for microorganisms other forces must have driven the evolution of their shape. Therefore scientists are beginning to think differently about how microbes interact with the physical world.

This research will provide a clear understanding of the links between microbial shape and function that will change our outlook on how and why microorganisms survive and flourish.

Professor Humphries’ main interests are the way in which physics and engineering can be used to understand biological processes.

He said: “All life evolves and changes in response to various pressures. My interests span from dinosaurs all the way through to coral reefs and back down to bacteria. The laws of physics are constant so will always apply to all of these organisms.

“I’m interested in how physics constrains evolution and how organisms can take advantage of physics to improve their chances of leaving descendants. Microbes are particularly important to our health, culture and industry and Biophysics – which uses methods of, and theories from, physics to study biological systems – will allow us to understand how these organisms work.”

On his appointment at the University of Lincoln, Professor Humphries added: “I was struck by the fact everybody at Lincoln seems to have the same overarching vision. There is a real opportunity to create something special here.”