Forschung am Institut für Mikrobiologie
Who we are, at a glance
Microbial Resource Management is the microbiologists’ answer to the demand for a circular economy, renewable energies and a sustainable society. The group consists of full professor Heribert Insam, Ass.-Prof. Thomas Pümpel, Univ.-Ass. Sabine Podmirseg, and (Senior) PostDocs Judith Ascher-Jenull, Maraike Probst, Sebastian Hupfauf, and Thomas Klammsteiner. Together with our researchers/PhD students Akshay Joshi, Nathan Ernster, Fabiana Nägele, Nico Peer, Sophia Strobl, Julia Vinzelj, Julia Zöhrer and MSc-students, we are working on numerous projects covering diverse yet interlinked aspects of microbial resource management. The key to our team’s success is our highly collaborative and complementary research approach, which allows us to unravel various research questions at an interdisciplinary and international scale. This enables us to span our focus from fundamental to application-oriented research without missing out on scientific outreach, including numerous science communication and arts & science projects, such as co-corporeality and six-legged livestock. These efforts are currently culminating in the Science Center MicrobX exhibit, slated to open in February 2024 with the mission to spread (basic vs. advanced vs. visionary) scientific knowledge in a spectacular way to a vast audience - as our fascinating Microbial World in which we live deserves. This permanent installation aims at building general awareness and convincing society about the power of science as a promising game-changer for ´tomorrow´.
Applied Soil Ecology and Biodegradation
One longstanding strength of our group is applied soil microbiology that looks into the effects of agronomic measures on the soil microbiota. This topic is currently led by Heribert and Judith, who have also served a combined 25 years as Chief Editors for the journal Applied Soil Ecology. A particular focus in past years has been the recycling of biomass ashes and its effects on temperate and tropical soils, derived from both classical heat and power plants, as well as pyrolysis byproducts of liquid fuel manufacturing from woody biomass (residue2heat). Problems with the storage of woody biomass for heat and power plants include up to 40% energy losses due to fungal and bacterial degradation of wood chips, although creative solutions have been developed at UIBK (e.g. calcium hydroxide as an additive). A related and ongoing topic, deadwood dynamics (DACH-DecAlp), is of great importance for carbon capture in forest soils (global C-cycle). This research line is also accompanied by a Master’s course on Biodegradation.
Nature knows it best: Composting, anaerobic fungi and anaerobic digestion
Within the overarching field of organic waste management, microbiology of composting has long been a focus of the group. Since 2004, a centerpiece of our research has involved anaerobic digestion of various organic residues, ranging from sewage sludge, lignocellulosic residues, and organic-, industrial-, and agricultural wastes (Microbes at Work). Now, thanks to Sabine, our working group has evolved to one of the most prominent worldwide to study anaerobic fungi (Neocallimastigomycota). These fungi are excellent lignocellulose degraders, and unleashing their biotechnological potential is her major task. Further optimization of biogas plants, either by challenging classical meso- and thermophilic processes or through improving co-digestion in serial and parallel reactors (2strategies4AD), may lead to unprecedented efficiency, a goal integrated by Sebastian. This research line is followed in the Master’s course on Biogas.
Operating in close collaboration with the Department of Ecology (Carina Heussler, Florian Steiner, Birgit Schlick-Steiner), the insect biotechnology group is pursuing another way to valorize organic waste. From a microbiological perspective, the main focus of Thomas K. involves the deciphering of microbiomes associated with various developmental stages of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) and the optimization of its rearing process. Byproducts of this process (e.g. frass and exuviae) are investigated as organic fertilizers, co-substrates for anaerobic digestion, and sources of chitin. Industrial collaborations and a strong applied thinking offer help in improving the rearing and efficiency of BSF as a means of waste management.
Being the only team in the western part of Austria researching wastewater microbiology and understanding the need to develop treatment technologies, we consider this topic as one of our major foci. Therefore, our research not only contributes to the state of the art, but aims at applying results to wastewater treatment plants. Expanding upon the DEMON® treatment process, patented by the University of Innsbruck and applied at facilities worldwide, serves as a constant research challenge for the team led by Sabine and Thomas P.. Close interdisciplinary cooperation with engineering companies and plant operators forms the basis for successful project realization and leads to various and highly specialized solutions improving municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants. Here, analyses of microbial community compositions and -dynamics play a pivotal role. A recent success story is the implementation of a nation-wide wastewater SARS-CoV-Monitoring including deep sequencing, initiated by Rudolf Markt. Highlighting the significance of discovering novel microbiological applications, this research field is integrated into the Master’s Course Microbial Biotechnology.
Scrutinizing existing approaches and method development
Fundamental research is continuously performed to further improve the DNA extraction efficiency from different environmental matrices, through sequential extraction and downstream-analyses of extracellular (exDNA) and intracellular DNA (iDNA). Comparisons between these DNA fractions and the total environmental DNA pool (eDNA) help to optimize the molecular accessibility and correct depiction of microbial communities.
All our research areas have a method development aspect. We are asking new questions relating to intra- versus extracellular DNA techniques (Judith, Sabine, Magdalena Nagler), as well as offering new interdisciplinary data analytical approaches and solutions (Maraike). We also have a strong computational line, evident in the development of the CoMA pipeline (Sebastian) and our collaboration with Miguel Rodriguez. This research line is also reflected in the Master’s Course Structure and Function of Microbiomes and Molecular Data Analysis.
We consider our work as a wonderful opportunity to do fundamental research, with immediate applications to far-reaching fields, e.g. for soil improvement, carbon sequestration, bioenergy production, waste management, wastewater purification and even pandemic management. Every aspect of our work is related to climate change mitigation and various sustainable development goals. Confident about their game-changing potential, we not only think but also practice circular ecology and bioeconomy!