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Jeremy Owen

2016: Dr Jeremy Owen, Victoria University of Wellington, School of Biological Sciences, has been awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for research entitled: 'Harnessing the Biosynthetic Potential of Uncultivated Microbes for the Discovery of New Antibiotics".


Dr Owen completed his PhD at Victoria University of Wellington in 2010, where he studied the genetics and enzymology of bacterial natural product biosynthesis. From 2011-2015 he was a postdoctoral associate in the Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules at the Rockefeller University in New York City. During this time, he developed approaches for discovering new drug candidates from bacteria that cannot be readily cultivated. Dr Owen returned to New Zealand funded by a Marsden Fast Start grant, and was appointed senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington in 2016. He currently leads a research group that is focused on discovering new antibiotic candidates to combat drug resistant bacterial infections. The particular focus of his laboratory is the use of DNA sequencing and synthetic biological approaches to access compounds that are produced by bacteria that cannot be grown in a laboratory.

Research summary

Recent developments in DNA sequencing technology have greatly enriched our understanding of the microbial world. By directly sequencing DNA extracted from communities of environmental microbes, we have been able to observe a hidden majority of microbial species that cannot be readily grown in the laboratory. We now know that the soil beneath our feet, and the oceans that surround us are home to a far greater diversity of microbial species than we had previously imagined. In the case of soil, just a single gram can contain more than 10,000 unique bacterial species, the vast majority of which have never been cultivated in a laboratory. Many of these uncultivated microbes harbor the potential to produce as yet unknown chemical entities that they use to kill competing species in their environments. We are surrounded by new antibiotics that are waiting to be discovered with the right approach.

With this fellowship Dr Owen will use DNA sequencing and synthetic biology to explore the biochemistry of New Zealand’s uncultivated microbes. By extracting DNA directly from complex microbial communities and storing this as a library of cloned fragments, he and his research team will be able to directly access the genes that act as blueprints for producing novel chemical entities, without being limited by the need to cultivate the host bacteria. By delivering these instruction sets to a laboratory host that is able to read and execute them, they will generate diverse collections of new biologically active small molecules that have the potential to be developed into medicines. A particular focus of this research will be the discovery new lead compounds in the fight against antibiotic resistant superbugs.