Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

Marine microbes and their membrane lipids

Microbial lipids are essential cell components, which can form reserve compounds or be part of the membrane separating cells from their surroundings. Over the years, some of them have been used as biomarkers of the presence of their specific biological producers, and also of the physiological conditions of the cell.

Marine environments are excellent sources of novel microorganisms and their lipids, especially the largely unknown oxygen-deficient marine ecosystems. The extent of these oxygen-deficient areas, or “dead zones” is increasing, both in coastal areas due to pollution and in open ocean oxygen minimum zones due to warming and stratification. These marine areas harbor a vast variety of yet-unknown microorganisms, which can either contribute to or alleviate climate change.

We are currently in the era of genomics, where genomes of microorganisms are providing key information of their metabolic, biotechnological potential and their evolutionary story. Nevertheless, the study of microbial lipids has enormous advantages in respect to DNA, as these biomolecules can be preserved for longer time scales and supply information on the past presence of specific microorganisms and the environmental conditions in which they were living. Some of these lipid biomarkers have been widely used in the last decades for paleoclimate interpretations. However, many uncertainties still remain due to the lack of information, in some cases, regarding the biological sources of these lipids, in which conditions they are synthesized and since when. To tackle these problems, my group investigates the microbial sources of specific lipids and how lipid biomarkers are synthesized. This is based on studies combining cutting-edge methods from lipidomics, genomics and culturing.


If you are interested in working on this fascinating research topic with us, you are welcome to come and discuss various opportunities. You can work with many different laboratory techniques, such as microbial culturing, microscopy, molecular techniques, and lipid analyses. Projects (preferably min. 6 months) can start throughout the year. Our target group are HBO and MSc students, but students of other study levels can also inquire.


If you are interested, please contact Laura Villanueva (

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