Meet a Microbiologist: Raphael Laurenceau

Chemical engineer turned microbiologist. Co-founder and co-organizer of a DIY biolab. Cultivator of photosynthetic bacteria. Raphael Laurenceau began his path in the sciences by studying chemical engineering. After watching several nature documentaries (thanks David Attenborough), he soon realized he was in the wrong field. There were too many fascinating things happening in the world’s ecosystems and Raphael wanted to study them. Though life is all chemistry, he wanted to study biology and used his chemistry background to leverage a career in biology. “I realized that chemistry is a great stepping stone to enter the world of biology. There is nothing more than chemical reactions happening inside cells,” Raphael says.

Name: Dr. Raphael Laurenceau

Job title: Postdoctoral researcher

Institution: MIT, Boston, MA, USA

Website: BosLab

Twitter: @raphael_micro

Setting up Boslab. Image credit: Norman Wozniak.

Now, Raphael is a postdoc at MIT studying Prochlorococcus, a genus of bacteria capable of photosynthesis. In photosynthesis, sunlight and carbon dioxide are transformed into organic matter releasing oxygen as a byproduct (just as plants do). These small bacteria are responsible for a large fraction of the oxygen we breathe and they are the base of the marine food web and eaten by many marine organisms. Prochlorococcus was discovered in 1986 by Penny Chisholm, who also happens to be Raphael’s PI!

Prochlorococcus is a difficult organism to study. Growing Prochlorococcus in a Petri dish takes up to a month before you can see growth (E. coli takes less than 18 hours). Despite hours, even days, of careful planning sometimes experiments go wrong. You miss a step or the bacteria just didn’t behave the way you anticipated. “When you realize after a month that something was missing in your experiment… that’s pretty nerve-wracking,” says Raphael.

Prochlorococcus (green) and its cousin Synechococcus (pink). Image credit: Raphael Laurenceau.

Prochlorococcus has also evaded all attempts of genetic manipulation. In many other species of bacteria, we have been able to insert or delete genes to study how that particular gene affects the bacterium. Because of its fragility and slow growth, we have not been able to find a way to genetically manipulate Prochlorococcus. Raphael has been tackling this problem in the lab. With the ability to genetically manipulate Prochlorococcus, we will be able to ask biological questions that we currently cannot.

While not in the lab, Raphael fills his time with… even more science! As a co-founder and co-organizer for Boslab, a DIY community biolab based in Somerville, MA, Raphael brings science experiments and classes to interested public. Boslab is a fully functional lab space where scientists and non-scientists come together to learn about biotechnology and how science impact society. Raphael has coordinated a truffle microbiome project where he leads a group of DIY biologists to find microbes that produce certain flavors in truffles and is now developing a genetic engineering class. “What I particularly enjoy at Boslab is the variety of people who come in and the fact all of them are extremely curious and eager to learn more, ” Raphael says.

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CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Meet a Microbiologist: Raphael Laurenceau by Jennifer Tsang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. // Reply

    Great post! I love when expertise in several scientific disciplines is put to use. I’m interested in lichen and the photosynthetic bacteria that help form these organisms. Do you know if Prochlorococcus ever joins with a fungus to form a lichen?

  2. // Reply

    Hi Olivia, I don’t think that any Prochlorococcus is known to live in symbiosis inside lichens. Some cyanobacteria for sure, but not closely related to Prochlorococcus. I will double-check that though!

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