Bug detectives

From the day that Professor Duncan Veal arrived at Macquarie as a newly appointed lecturer in 1988, he was conscious of the university’s collaborative culture. In his search for waterborne parasites that others had failed to detect, he would draw on Macquarie’s expertise in laser applications and its partnerships with industry, as well as his own background in microbiology. 

 “By definition, microorganisms are things that are too small to see. In the past, we called upon a range of specialist techniques to detect, track and measure the activity of these organisms,” he explains. 

“Most of the methods used were indirect – typically they involved growing microorganisms on agar plates or broth. Our work focused on direct detection – we wanted to understand activity of microorganisms in real time and in their natural environment.” 

After completing his PhD at the University of Reading in the UK in 1984, Professor Veal moved to Cardiff and spent four years as post-doctoral researcher and lecturer. He trained as a microbial ecologist. “There weren’t too many microbial ecologists around; it was a relatively new discipline,” he recalls. 

“The frustration in microbial ecology was that most of the techniques available did not allow us to examine individual organisms in real-time or in their natural environment.” 

“Further, over 99 per cent of microorganisms could not be grown on agar or in broth and were thus not amenable to study using classical techniques. That was our starting point.” 

During his PhD, Professor Veal had experimented with fluorescence as a technique for detecting, marking and measuring microorganisms. Realising that the technique had further potential and required development, he embraced the opportunity to pursue his research further on his arrival at Macquarie. 

“I was really fortunate to arrive at Macquarie when I did. At the same time as my interest was growing in the development of fluorescence-based techniques, there was tremendous growth in the biological sciences in terms of new ways of labelling, detecting and measuring the activity of animal cells,” he says. 

“These techniques included using fluorescently labelled antibodies or the nucleic acids, for example DNA, or substrates that respond to a cell’s activity by becoming fluorescent.” 

“The challenge was to adapt these techniques to the study of microorganisms, which are much smaller than animal cells, in natural environments: for example in soil, water and milk. These environments contain materials such as particles or fat globules which interfere with direct assays. 

At the same time as the developments seen in biology there was also rapid development in the area of optics and electronics, which were used in areas such as telecommunication and defence.” 

Under the research leadership of Professor Jim Piper, Macquarie was developing a world-leading capability in the area of laser applications and optoelectronics. Professor Veal saw an opportunity to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to drive innovation. 

“My interest was in using fluorescence to label microorganisms for microbial ecology; Jim Piper’s team was at the cutting edge of advances in optoelectronics,” he explains. “It was a very fortunate marriage and we attracted some extremely smart students, keen to work at the cutting-edge of both microbiology and optoelectronics.” 

The Macquarie research team engaged with industry early on, working closely with Carlton United Breweries to measure yeast activity and the Dairy Research and Development Corporation regarding spoilage organisms in milk products. The team also worked with Sydney Water to detect the waterborne parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidium in water supplies. 

The detection of the waterborne parasites was particularly challenging as it required the detection of very small numbers in very large volumes of water. The team also established international collaborations, working with Thames Water in the UK and the EPA in the USA. \

First, the team developed antibodies and nucleic acid probes that specifically targeted the parasites – these were then labelled with fluorescent markers. 

Drawing on its expertise as a global manufacturer of instrumentation, Becton Dickinson then adapted a flow cytometer, used in cell biology, by integrating Macquarie’s developed technology. In combination with the fluorescently-labelled antibodies and nucleic acid probes, the cytometer could then be used for the detection of Cryptosporidium and Giardia. 

“The antibodies that we developed are still used to detect Cryptosporidium and Giardia in water supplies, around the world,” says Professor Veal. “They’re also used to detect these protozoan parasites in animal and human faecal samples. They’ve been very important in terms of the epidemiology of Cryptosporidium so that we can identify where there’s been an outbreak.” 

The university supported the commercialisation of the antibody research to facilitate its uptake in industry. A significant outcome has been the control of the diseasecausing protozoan parasites Cryptosporidium and Giardia. The Macquarie team’s discoveries have also led to a better understanding of the biology of Cryptosporidium with the realisation that there are, in fact, many species; only some of them impact human health. 

After 20 years at Macquarie, Professor Veal left the university to pursue commercialisation opportunities in industry. He was CEO of Fluorotechnics from 2002 until its listing on the ASX in 2008. He then spent two years in Germany as Chief Technology Officer of Gel Company returning in 2010 to take up a position as Commercialisation Manager for Meat and Livestock Australia. 

Since he left the university, Professor Veal has retained close ties with his academic colleagues; he continues to see Macquarie’s collaborative culture as a foundation for innovation. 

“Macquarie did not have the strict boundaries that you would find at another, more traditional university. It was very easy for me to wander in with a cup of coffee and talk to Jim [Piper] and pursue joint projects,” says Professor Veal. 

“The way the university was structured enabled students to take a wide variety of courses – they could get involved in everything from business studies to biology to laser physics.” 

“The university was also very supportive in terms of grants and particularly supported collaboration with industry; it supported our role in working for the community good. It was a university that broke down the barriers to create the collaborative and collegiate environment that is a key to innovation.”

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