This page belongs to: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2023

2023 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

Professor Chris Greening 

Monash University’s Professor Chris Greening received the 2023 Frank Fenner Prize of Life Scientist of the Year. 

Professor Greening has redefined life through his world-first discovery that microbes live on air. 

Most people have little understanding of microbes and think of them mainly as pathogens. However, most microbes are beneficial for humanity. Chris’s work showed that atmospherically-powered microbes are highly abundant and active throughout soils and waters. 

Chris discovered that microbes’ help regulate climate change and air pollution. Microbes remove 350 million tonnes of gases such as carbon monoxide from the atmosphere each year. 

Chris is now a Chief Investigator of Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF). He uses his discoveries to understand climate responses and inform conservation efforts in Antarctica.

Watch video highlights

Transcript

[Image appears of a Frank Fenner Prize Life Scientist of the Year medallion above text: Professor Chris Greening, MBiochem (OXON), PhD (Otago).

[Image changes to show Prof Chris Greening talking to the camera]

Prof Chris Greening: When I was a kid, I had no idea I wanted to be a scientist. 

[Images move through to show Chris and colleagues working in a lab, a close view of a sample in a petri dish, and then Chris and a colleague talking together]

I thought that science was mostly about learning facts but actually science is really creative. 

[Images move through to show Chris talking to the camera, a close view of Chris talking, a researcher holding a petri dish, and a close view of the researcher turning towards the camera]

When I finally realised, I could actually create new knowledge but also make a wider difference in the world, that was when science really became a massive passion for me, and it was genuinely exhilarating. 

[Images move through to show a close profile view of Chris and a colleague at work, Chris talking to the camera, and a view looking down on the Biomedicine Discovery Institute, and text appears: Professor Chris Greening]

I am Chris Greening. I am a professor in microbiology at the Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University. 

[Image changes to show various views of the Monash University, and then the image changes to show Chris talking to the camera]

As a microbiologist, we study single-celled organisms known as microbes. 

[Images move through to show various samples in bottles, a stack of petri dishes, a machine in the lab, and Chris talking to the camera]

The vast majority of microbes are positive and they’re actually really critical for everything we do.

[Images move through to show Chris and colleagues at work looking at a machine, looking together at a computer screen, and medium and close views of Chris talking] 

But what many people might not realise is that microbes can live for years even centuries without conventional organic foods. 

[Images move through to show a view looking down on a park, Chris and colleagues walking towards the camera through a park, and a close view of Chris looking towards the camera]

And so our researchers asked the simple question how can they do that.

[Image changes to show Chris talking to the camera]

Our world first discovery is that microbes can live on air. 

[Image changes to show a close view of Chris talking to the camera, and then the image changes to show Chris and a colleague setting up an experiment in a park]

They can take up tiny amounts of hydrogen and carbon monoxide from the atmosphere and use that to continually tick over. 

[Images move between the experiment being set up in the park by Chris and colleagues, and Chris talking to the camera, and then the image changes to show the sun shining through leaves of a tree]

So, this process means that 350,000,000 tons of carbon monoxide and hydrogen are removed from the atmosphere every single year and that in turn regulates climate change, but it also removes toxic gases like carbon monoxide from the atmosphere and counteracts air pollution. 

[Images move through to show Chris and a colleague in conversation in a lab, and then views of various Antarctic landscapes]

Through this research I became a chief investigator of the organisation called Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future. 

[Image changes to show a close view of waves crashing over icebergs in the ocean, and then the image changes to show Chris talking to the camera]

Our mission is to understand how climate will change on the continent, how life will be affected and then feed that into policy.

[Images move through to show Chris setting up an experiment]

I am a first generation academic. 

[Images move through to show Chris and a colleague working in the lab, Chris talking to the camera, a close view of Chris talking, and a close view of a syringe being unsheathed]

I’m from the LGBT Community and I’m also someone who is not neuroatypical, I have ADHD which can be both the greatest disability and the greatest strength. 

[Images move through to show Chris syringing up liquid from a sample bottle, Chris talking to the camera, Chris talking to a colleague, and then Chris and colleagues setting up an experiment]

I found a place in science for me and that’s really me playing to my strengths and relying extensively on wonderful collaborations within and outside our team. 

[Images move through to show Chris and a colleague looking at a computer, Chris talking to the camera, and a view looking through a window at Chris and his colleague working on a computer]

To receive the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year is surreal. 

[Images move through to show Chris and a colleague in conversation, views of Chris talking to the camera, and then medium and close views of Chris smiling at the camera in a park]

I hope that by receiving this prize people can see that anyone can be a scientist, and there’s multiple ways that one can make an impact.

[Music plays and the image changes to show a Frank Fenner Prize Life Scientist of the Year medallion on the left, the Australian Government Coat of Arms at the bottom right, and text on the right: 2023 Frank Fenner Prize Life Scientist of the Year]