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University of Otago honours Microbiology research leader

Tuesday 5 August 2014

University of Otago honours Microbiology research leader

A world-leading authority on how bacteria grow and survive in extreme conditions, Professor Greg Cook, is this year’s recipient of the University of Otago’s highest distinction, the Distinguished Research Medal.

Greg Cook is a Professor in Otago’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology who has gained an international reputation for his innovative studies into bacterial physiology. This includes work towards developing a revolutionary class of antibiotics aimed at crippling the metabolism of pathogenic bacteria and side-stepping existing bacterial drug-resistance mechanisms.

The University awards the Distinguished Research Medal for outstanding scholarly achievement, including the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, the development of innovative technology, or the development of concepts that lead to significant advances.

Announcing the honour, Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne warmly congratulated Professor Cook, noting that he is a richly deserving recipient of the Medal.

“Greg Cook is an energetic researcher at the forefront of his scientific field and one whose work holds great promise for tackling the growing threat of widespread antibiotic resistance. In addition to his many scholarly accomplishments, he has also proven to be a strong leader in this University’s research effort through nurturing the development of dozens of postgraduate students.”

Professor Cook’s pioneering multidisciplinary approach to improving the understanding of key aspects of bacterial physiology that enable microorganisms to survive in extreme environments has earned him international recognition. His investigations involve biochemistry, protein purification and crystallography, PC3 laboratory experiments, molecular biology and genetics.

In 2011, his contributions to understanding how extremophile bacteria are able to survive in harsh conditions were recognised through the naming of a bacterium found in Utah’s Great Salt Lake in his honour. The bacterium, Amphibacillus cookii is a spore-forming polyextremophile able to flourish in extremely salty and alkaline conditions.

Professor Cook has had more than 130 papers published in peer-reviewed journals and has established numerous international collaborations with world-leading microbiologists and bacterial geneticists. His programme of research has attracted major funding from New Zealand and overseas sources.

Most recently, the Cook laboratory and its collaborators’ investigations into energy production in mycobacteria have been published in top international journals. His breakthrough findings offer the prospect of developing a new class of anti-tuberculosis drugs. These drugs would target the mechanisms that they have discovered allowing mycobacteria to survive when starved of oxygen.

Earlier this year he received a Health Research Council Explorer Grant to pursue the design of such ‘metabiotic’ compounds to combat multidrug-resistant pathogens such as MRSA.

Professor Cook has developed and led a dynamic research team at Otago, and trained and mentored more than fifty postgraduate students. He has contributed strongly to the University’s research culture and was appointed Associate Dean of Research in the Otago School of Medical Sciences last year.

Professor Cook gained his BSc, MSc(Hons) and DPhil at the University of Waikato. After graduating with the latter qualification in 1992, he took up a postdoctoral position at Cornell University in the USA and then became a Research Associate at King’s College London. In 1998, he returned to New Zealand to join the Otago Department of Microbiology and Immunology as a lecturer. He was later promoted to Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor and was made a full Professor in 2009.

He was awarded a prestigious two-year James Cook Research Fellowship in 2011 to support his work and last year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and also received the Otago School of Medical Sciences’ Distinguished Research Award.

Professor Cook says he is delighted to win the University’s Distinguished Research Medal.

“This award reflects the significant contribution made by my team to research performed at Otago. I’m very proud to be the first Microbiology recipient of the medal and would like to acknowledge the strong mentorship from my senior colleagues and the collegial environment of our Department.”

Professor Cook will receive the medal when he delivers a public lecture on October 16th.

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