Introducing Discovery Fellow Dr Laura Nolan

21st April 2023

We recently welcomed new Discovery Fellow Dr Laura Nolan to the Quadram Institute. We spoke to Laura about her research and how this could help reduce food waste.

A woman with brown hair wearing lab coat in the lab, wearing a mask

“Almost 10% of the world’s population do not have enough to eat. At the same time, around one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted.

Spoilage by microbes is a key contributor to food waste. The microbes that cause food spoilage grow on the surface of food in matrix-encased communities called biofilms. My research is focused on studying biofilm development and community interactions in the context of food spoilage.

I moved to the Quadram Institute in February 2023 on a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Discovery Fellowship.

My research uses systems biology approaches to understand how microbes form biofilms, and how microbial interactions shape population profile dynamics within these communities.

It is well known which microbes spoil food but there is very little known about how these microbes build biofilms on food. We also don’t know how the microbes interact with one another and with the food surface to spoil the food.

We are working to address these knowledge gaps and apply our findings to develop ways to reduce food spoilage and extend food shelf life. Through understanding the science of how microbes spoil food we could increase global food availability.

My overarching research goal is to use the fundamental understanding we obtain about microbial biofilms to develop translational outputs.

Until recently my focus has been on studying medically relevant biofilms with the goal of using our knowledge of biofilms in these settings to develop interventions to improve human health.

I was a Group Leader on an Imperial College Research Fellowship at the National Heart and Lung Institute in London. I focused on biofilm development and community interactions that are relevant to the cystic fibrosis lung, with the aim to use this understanding to develop interventions that improve infection outcomes for cystic fibrosis patients.

The medical biofilm field is an incredibly important area. However, it does have challenges that can limit our ability to translate fundamental understanding into effective treatments and interventions.

One major challenge in medical biofilms is to develop biofilm models in the lab that accurately mimic the relevant setting in a human. Modelling the real-world setting is important as without this your lab-based findings are unlikely to be relevant in humans.

This is when I became interested in food biofilms. Food biofilms became very attractive to me as an area to expand my research because we can model food spoilage biofilms in the lab relatively easily.

Food biofilms are a very understudied area with great potential for translating our fundamental understanding into interventions that could have a huge global impact. The Quadram Institute was an obvious choice for me when I was looking at where to move my lab to expand my research to include food spoilage biofilms.

This was down to the excellent food-related microbiology research at the Quadram Institute, as well as the opportunities to collaborate with experts in food chain genomics and microbiology and the fantastic research infrastructure.

I have a lot of research plans I am excited about. In terms of our food spoilage biofilm work in the short term, I am keen to build relationships with industry partners to develop interventions that reduce food spoilage and extend food shelf life.

In the longer term I am interested in exploring collaborations with food scientists to see if we can identify components of food that are necessary for microbial biofilm formation and spoilage, and then determine if these components can be changed to make food that is “spoilage resistant” or at least is harder for microbes to spoil.

In terms of broader research plans I will continue to have a love of all things biofilms! I’m always looking for potential research avenues in the biofilm space that I could contribute to and get involved in. I am keen to share my biofilm and community interaction expertise and systems biology approaches we are using and developing in my group to study biofilms.

Some other biofilm related areas I already have interest in for potential future collaborations are in understanding how biofilm development and community profile dynamics impact upon development of the baby gut microbiota and on plant health.”

Banner Image: Pseudomonas strains forming a biofilm on spinach and degrading the leaf. Biofilm microcolonies are in red.

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