Nicole Dubilier, Ph.D.

Ecology of chemosynthetic environments and symbionts in marine invertebrates


Research in the Dubilier lab focuses on symbioses between marine animals and chemosynthetic bacteria.

Nicole Dubilier, Ph.D.

Research Description

Research in the Dubilier lab focuses on symbioses between marine animals and chemosynthetic bacteria. These chemosynthetic symbioses were first discovered at hydrothermal vents in the deep sea in the late 1970s and revolutionized our understanding of the energy sources that fuel primary productivity on Earth. Before the discovery of hydrothermal vents, it was assumed that all life on Earth is fueled directly or indirectly by energy from the sun. The symbiotic animals at hydrothermal vents are fueled by chemosynthetic primary production: their microbes use geofuels from the Earth's internal energy to fix CO2 and convert it into organic material in a process similar to photosynthesis but using inorganic compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide or methane as energy sources instead of sunlight. These symbioses have enabled the animals to colonize and thrive in toxic and inhospitable environments in which they would otherwise not be able to live.

Remarkably, it took the discovery of these chemosynthetic symbioses in the deep-sea only 35 years ago to realize that they also occur in our marine 'backyards' in environments as unexotic as sewage outfalls or shallow-water sand flats. We now know that chemosynthetic symbioses occur throughout the oceans of the world in deep- and shallow-water environments, such as continental margins, cold seeps, salt marshes, coral reef sands, and even the carcasses of whales rotting on the bottom of the seafloor.

Research Impact

Chemosynthetic symbioses are not only ideal models for understanding interactions between bacteria and animals, but also among bacteria because many hosts harbor a consortium of up to six different kinds of bacterial symbionts that interact with each other. The symbionts gain their energy and carbon sources from the environment and the distribution of these symbioses is therefore directly affected by environmental gradients in electron donors, acceptors, carbon, and other nutrients. In contrast to the high diversity of free-living microbial communities whose complexity has challenged a detailed understanding of the functional linkages between the environment and the biota, chemosynthetic associations with their low diversity of symbionts are ideal for understanding how the acquisition and use of nutrients by bacteria is affected by the environment and vice-versa.

Our goal is to gain insight into the metabolic pathways and processes that allow chemosynthetic bacteria from deep-sea and shallow-water habitats to gain energy and nutrients from the environments, interact with co-occurring bacteria, and colonize their invertebrate hosts. Given that many chemosynthetic symbionts are closely related to ecologically important free-living benthic and pelagic bacteria and share common pathways for gaining energy and acquiring carbon, nitrogen and other compounds, we hope to contribute to a better understanding of energy and matter fluxes in the ocean.

Media Press

MPI News - Nicole Dubilier appointed Director at the Max Plank Institute in Bremen

MPI News - Leibniz Prize for Marine Scientists Nicole Dubilier

Scientific American - Empirically Dancing Your Way to the Top - How Nicole Dubilier Does It!


related links

Marine Microbiology Initiative Science Max Planck Society, Institute for Marine Microbiology Back


Ph.D., Marine Biology
University of Hamburg,Germany, 1985

Diplom, Zoology, Biochemistry and Microbiology
University of Hamburg,Germany, 1985


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, 2013 

Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, elected in 2013

Designated Vice-Chair (2014-2015) and Chair (2016-2017) of the American Society of Microbiology


Zimmermann, J., C. Lott, M. Weber, A. Ramette, M. Bright, N. Dubilier, & J. M. Petersen. (2014). Dual symbiosis with co-occurring sulfur-oxidizing symbionts in vestimentiferan tubeworms from a Mediterranean hydrothermal vent. Environ Microbiol. doi: 10.1111/1462-2920.12427 

Jan, C., J. M. Petersen, J. Werner, H. Teeling, S. Huang, F. O. Glockner, O. V. Golyshina, N. Dubilier, P. N. Golyshin, M. Jebbar, & M. A. Cambon-Bonavita. (2014). The gill chamber epibiosis of deep-sea shrimp Rimicaris exoculata: an in-depth metagenomic investigation and discovery of Zetaproteobacteria. Environ Microbiol, 16(9), 2723-2738. doi: 10.1111/1462-2920.12406 

Wentrup, C., A. Wendeberg, J. Y. Huang, C. Borowski, & N. Dubilier. (2013). Shift from widespread symbiont infection of host tissues to specific colonization of gills in juvenile deep-sea mussels. ISME J, 7(6), 1244-1247. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2013.5

Raggi, L., F. Schubotz, K. U. Hinrichs, N. Dubilier, & J. M. Petersen. (2013). Bacterial symbionts of Bathymodiolus mussels and Escarpia tubeworms from Chapopote, an asphalt seep in the Southern Gulf of Mexico. Environ Microbiol, 15(7), 1969-1987. doi: 10.1111/1462-2920.12051

McFall-Ngai, M., M. G. Hadfield, T. C. G. Bosch, H. V. Carey, T. Domazet-Loso, A. E. Douglas, N. Dubilier, G. Eberl, T. Fukami, S. F. Gilbert, U. Hentschel, N. King, S. Kjelleberg, A. H. Knoll, N.  Kremer, S. K.  Mazmanian, J. L. Metcalf, K. Nealson, N. E. Pierce, J. F. Rawls, A. Reid, E. G. Ruby, M. E. Rumpho, J. G. Sanders, D. Tautz, & J. J. Wernegreen. (2013). Animals in a bacterial world, a new imperative for the life sciences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 110(9), 3229-3236. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1218525110

Kleiner, M., J. C. Young, M. Shah, N. C. VerBerkmoes, & N. Dubilier. (2013). Metaproteomics reveals abundant transposase expression in mutualistic endosymbionts. MBio, 4(3), e00223-00213. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00223-13

Affiliated Investigators