Associate Professor Chris Greening has been awarded the prestigious Fenner Medal by the Australian Academy of Science.

The Fenner Medal recognises outstanding research in biology by a scientist who has completed their PhD within the last 10 years. It is named after Professor Frank Fenner, the late Australian virologist who led the global eradication of smallpox.

“I am overjoyed to win this medal. It’s a great honour, especially given the stellar achievements of previous awardees, including fellow SAEF members Michael Bode and Ceridwen Fraser,” Chris said. 

“This medal reflects major joint efforts and wouldn’t have been possible without great team members, collaborators, mentors, and other supporters, as well as Monash University and funding from the ARC, NHMRC, AAD, and Wellcome Trust. I am very grateful to the Australian Academy of Science for this distinction.”

The award recognises Chris’s work leading the One Health Microbiology Group within the Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University. During this time he and his team have made the incredible discovery that bacteria can “live on air”, redefining our understanding about the minimum requirements for life on Earth. 

He and his colleagues have shown that bacteria can thrive in soils and waters worldwide by scavenging hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas in the atmosphere. Through this process, these bacteria can gain energy, make biomass, and even create water, enabling them to live in harsh environments such as Antarctic deserts and volcanic craters. 

Chris is a chief investigator within SAEF where his work focuses on using microbiology to address key challenges in health and sustainability. 

Through SAEF, we are trying to better understand the identity, capabilities, and activities of the microbial communities in Antarctica, as well as predict how this will change in response to climate change. In turn, we hope this activity will inform ongoing efforts to census biodiversity and inform stewardship in the continent.”

Chris has worked with Antarctic microorganisms since starting his group at Monash University, but hasn’t yet had the opportunity to visit the continent. He reveals, “I may be given the opportunity to go down later this year, in order to survey the Vestfold Hills region, after missing two field seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If this works out, it would be an amazing experience.”

Asked about why we need to protect Antarctica, Chris says that alongside the immediate threats of sea level rise from melting ice sheets, we should also acknowledge that life in Antarctica is unique in biodiversity and the processes that drive it – and that this should be protected. 

“Due to its extreme conditions, photosynthesis is limited and instead most terrestrial life on the continent appears to be driven by atmospheric energy sources. Forecast climate change and any other anthropogenic pressures have the potential to shift these communities towards photosynthetically-driven ones like those in most other regions of earth.”

SAEF congratulates Chris for his achievements and the well-deserved recognition. 

Previous winners of the Fenner Medal include fellow SAEF members, Associate Professor Michael Bode (2020) and Dr Ceridwen Fraser (2018).