Prof. Cynthia Whitchurch

Group Leader

Contact via email

Bacterial lifestyles

I obtained my BSc (Hons I) in 1989 and PhD in 1994 at the University of Queensland and undertook postdoctoral research at the University of Queensland and the University of California San Francisco. In 2004 I established my own research group in the Department of Microbiology at Monash University. In 2008 I was recruited to the University of Technology Sydney where I led the “Bacterial Lifestyles Research Group” in The ithree institute and was founding Director of the Microbial Imaging Facility (MIF). In 2019 I joined the Quadram Institute Bioscience as a Group Leader.

Throughout my career I have investigated various aspects of bacterial pathogenesis and biofilms. My current research focuses on understanding the contributions and interplay of alternative bacterial lifestyles to infection and persistence and to exploit this knowledge to develop innovative approaches to combat infection.  I work closely with industry partners to translate these research findings into novel approaches to prevent and treat infections.

I am particularly interested in understanding how bacteria build biofilm structures and move about in them and how bacteria respond to external stresses such as antibiotics.   This research has led to a number of seminal discoveries including that:

  • extracellular DNA (eDNA) is required for biofilm development
  • self-organisation of actively expanding biofilms is facilitated by eDNA and substrate remodelling
  • stigmergy is a conceptual framework that applies to bacterial self-organised collective behaviours
  • bacterial communities produce shared resources (eDNA, membrane vesicles, and other cytosolic ‘public goods’) through explosive cell lysis of a subset of the population
  • some bacteria can tolerate high concentrations of beta lactam antibiotics by reversibly transitioning to a cell wall deficient (L-form) lifestyle.

The impact and quality of my research has been recognised through high citation rates and prestigious fellowships and awards including NHMRC (Australia) Career Development and Senior Research Fellowships; and the 2016 David Syme Research Prize for best original research in biology in Australia during the preceding 2 years- I am one of only a handful of women ever to be awarded the prize and the first in over 30 years. In 2019 I was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

Key Publications

Whitchurch, C.B., Tolker-Nielsen, T., Ragas, P.C., and Mattick, J.S. (2002) Extracellular DNA required for biofilm formation, Science 22, 1487 DOI: 10.1126/science.295.5559.1487

Gloag, E.S.#, Turnbull, L.#, Huang, A., Vallotton, P., Wang, H., Nolan, L.M., Mililli, L., Hunt, C., Lu, J., Osvath, S.R., Monahan, L.G., Cavaliere, R., Charles, I.G., Wand, M.P., Gee, M.L., Ranganathan, P. & Whitchurch, C.B. (2013) Self-organization of bacterial biofilms is facilitated by extracellular DNA, Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences USA, 110 (28): 11541-11546. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1218898110

Gloag, ES, Javed, MA, Wang, H, Gee, ML, Wade, SA, Turnbull, L & Whitchurch, CB. (2013) Stigmergy- A key driver of self-organization in bacterial biofilms, Communicative and Integrative Biology, 6:6 e27331 DOI: 10.4161/cib.27331

Monahan, L.G., Turnbull, L., Osvath, S.R., Birch, D., Charles, I.G. & Whitchurch, C.B. (2014) Rapid conversion of Pseudomonas aeruginosa to a spherical cell morphotype facilitates tolerance to carbapenems and penicillins but increases susceptibility to antimicrobial peptides, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 58(4): 1956-62. DOI: 10.1128/AAC.01901-13

Turnbull, L. , Toyofuku, M., Hynen, A.L., Kurosawa, M., Pessi, G., Petty, N.K., Osvath, S.R., Cárcamo-Oyarce, G., Gloag, E.S., Shimoni, R., Omasits, U., Ito, S., Yap, X., Monahan, L.G., Cavaliere, R., Ahrens, C.H., Charles, I.G., Nomura, N., Eberl, L. & Whitchurch, C.B. (2016) Explosive cell lysis as a mechanism for the biogenesis of bacterial membrane vesicles and biofilms, Nature Communications,7: 11220 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms11220