New EAM Member: Prof. Paul Rainey


At the end of 2019, the European Academy of Microbiology (EAM) elected eleven new members from across different European countries and disciplines.

New EAM Members are:

This month, we spoke with Prof. Paul Rainey at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology (Germany) and at ESPCI in Paris (France) about his research, and the profession of a microbiologist.

What are you currently researching?

I am as a kid in a toy shop.  Science is too much fun and there are too many interesting questions.  Overall, our work concerns the population biology of bacteria, but this ranges from theoretical studies on the evolution of individuality, to experimental work on the origins of multicellularity, to predicting mutational routes to new phenotypes, to development of new ways of studying microbial communities, to the design and implementation of new technologies for top-down engineering of microbial communities.

What has been the most unusual or surprising finding in this line of research?

With focus on recent work that has linked genes to microbial community function via experimental manipulation of selfish genetic elements, I have been taken aback by the extraordinary flux of DNA that moves horizontally along with phages and other mobile genetic elements.  This has led me to consider the possibility that microbial communities are shaped by processes that while recognised at the population level, assume, in the context of communities, a dynamic and impact that remains largely unrecognised.

What aspect of this research have you most enjoyed?

The discovery.

What is in your opinion a scientific development microbiologists should keep an eye on?

Microbial communities have been considered the next frontier for some time, but they remain the next frontier!  The challenge is to move from description to the understanding of processes, while confronting (and not avoiding) challenges that come from complexity of the system.  It is also worth keeping an eye on the impressive advances that come from biophysics and quantitative approaches for exploring longstanding problems in fundamental microbiology.  Also from physics come technologies including milli- and micro-fluidics, acoustic traps, electro-wetting and so forth that have a myriad of applications in microbiology.

What information, either related to the science or the professional path of a microbiologist, do you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?

I was horribly naive and although with hindsight I might have wished to have been less naive, that might have come at the expense of curiosity.  My advice, always, is to be curious and take pleasure in satisfying that curiosity – even if that curiosity might sometimes get you in trouble.

About Professor Paul Rainey

Prof. Paul Rainey

Paul was born in New Zealand and completed his bachelors, masters and PhD at the University of Canterbury.  From 1989 until 2005 he was based in the UK where most of his time was as researcher and then professor at the University of Oxford.  He began transitioning back to New Zealand in 2003, firstly as Chair of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Auckland, but then in 2007 moved to the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study as one of its founding professors.  Paul is currently Director of the Department of Microbial Population Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (Germany) and Professor at ESPCI in Paris.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and a Member of EMBO.

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About the EAM: The European Academy of Microbiology (EAM) is an initiative of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS) aimed at amplifying the impact and visibility of microbiology and microbiologists in Europe. EAM includes leading microbiologists in their own fields and is dedicated to promote excellence in microbiology through targeted programs and activities at the edges of the discipline, and communication to scientists, stakeholders and to the public.

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