Introducing the Neilan Laboratory

Introducing the Neilan Laboratory

An established leader in cyanobacterial research and environmental microbiology

Led by Scientia Professor Brett Neilan, the Neilan Laboratory of Microbial and Molecular Diversity has facilities to identify the genes responsible for the production of toxins in several strains of cyanobacteria and investigate the mechanisms of toxin biosynthesis, regulation of toxin genes, and the evolutionary ecology of these aquatic microbes.Microcystis aeruginosa, seen here with its photosynthetic pigments all aglow under UV microscopy, produces microcystin, the world’s most common freshwater toxin.

Around the globe this year many significant drinking water sources, notably the US Great Lakes, Taihu in China, and our own River Murray, have or will become infested with harmful algal blooms. The past twenty years has witnessed major advances in our understanding of the genetic basis for toxin production in these microorganisms, leading to advances in the management of these problems.

The Lab’s early work on the genomics of cyanobacterial toxicity led to the discovery of a pathway for the production of the cosmopolitan liver toxins, microcystin and the related compound nodularin. This work provided evidence of gene transfer and rearrangement in the natural ecosystems. Studies also identified several of the biotic and abiotic interactions in the environment that regulate toxin production, as well as associated toxin transport mechanisms.

More recently, hybrid pathways have been implicated in the production of the sub-tropical alkaloid cylindrospermopsin. This information, in-turn, has led to the first candidate genes involved in paralytic shellfish poisoning (saxitoxins) in diverse cyanobacteria and dinoflagellates, affecting both water and seafood quality.

The global distribution of toxic blue-green and marine microalgae has been the topic of several phylogeographical studies. Understanding the role of these toxins in the many different producers and the responses of their genes to specific and niche environments is key to managing the impact of bloom events.

The application of this home grown research has been patented and commercialised by an Australian company (Diagnostic Technology P/L). This year, the Ohio EPA became the first authority to recommend cyanobacterial DNA testing for water quality assessment.

About Scientia Professor Brett Neilan

Neilan’s research has been recognised by numerous national and international honours and awards, including an Oxford-Nuffield fellowship nomination, the Kanagawa Museum of Natural History award, the Fenner Biology Medal, three Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the NSW Scientist of the Year award, and the Khwarizmi Fundamental Research International Laureate. Neilan has also been invited to contribute to government water quality guidelines and reforms in the USA, Europe, Brazil, South Africa and China as well as Australia.

About the Lab

The Neilan Laboratory comprises 10 post-doctoral researchers and 20 post-graduate students and is a world-leader on the genetics, chemical ecology and management of harmful algae and their toxins. For more information, contact

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