Professor Peter Steinberg
Director of SIMS
Field of Research: 
Chemical ecology, seaweed ecology, bacterial biofilms
Contact details:
+61 2 9385 3273
Room 4112, Level 4
Biological Sciences South (E26)

UNSW, Kensington 2052

Research & Current Interests

Climate change and diseases of marine organisms: vanishing kelps 

In the last ten years the effects of disease on natural marine communities have become increasingly apparent, with organisms as diverse as seagrasses, seals and corals suffering from major disease-related die-offs. In a number of these instances human impacts via pollution or climate change are thought to have played a major role in the impact of these diseases. Recent evidence indicates that "bleaching" of the red seaweed Delisea pulchra is due to a bacterial disease.  Seaweeds are the “trees” of temperate rocky reefs, creating the biological habitat in which many other marine organisms flourish.  In the same way that the potential loss of coral reefs from climate change would have dramatic, system-wide effects in tropical waters, the loss of kelp from temperate shores would be devastating to the functioning and biodiversity of these systems. Kelps are diminishing in abundance in Tasmania, and have also disappeared from urban areas around Sydney and Adelaide, suggesting that these plants are being challenged by human impacts from cities as well as global warming.  As part of the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), we are combining cutting-edge robotics technology with field ecology and molecular microbiology to gain insights into the distribution and condition of kelp communities around Australia in order to understand how they are responding to environmental change. We are also investigating broadly the interplay between bacterial virulence and environmental factors such as temperature, light and nutrients, and natural bacterial inhibitors to understand the epidemiology and impact of disease on the ecology of kelps and other seaweeds.


Synergies between marine ecology and environmental microbiology

Marine organisms are subject to a constant bombardment from millions of microbial cells typically found in every millilitre of seawater. Interactions between marine macro- and micro- organisms are important in structuring marine communities and have been linked to the evolution of chemical defences, the maintenance of genetic diversity and even the evolution and persistence of sex. Understanding marine prokaryote/ eukaryote interactions has implications for a remarkably diverse array of endeavours, from the preservation of marine biodiversity to an understanding of diseases of marine and aquatic organisms to the development of novel antibiotics. These studies overlap broadly across our entire research program.


Marine Chemical Ecology

The identification of novel bioactive compounds is an emergent field that represents a unification of the fields of molecular biology, microbiology, natural products chemistry, and marine ecology. The field of marine chemical ecology has long been dominated by studies of plant/herbivore or predator/prey interactions and our group has a long history of investigating these interactions at all levels, form the molecular to the biogeographical. Increasingly our work in this area also encompasses studies ofsettlement inducers for invertebrate larvae.  Chemical inducers of settlement act as cues for settling propagules (larvae, spores, etc.), enabling these planktonic forms to settle in an appropriate habitat for resumption of the benthic (bottom-dwelling) phase of their life history. The analysis of cues which control settlement in marine organisms and understanding the generality or specificity at which these cues operate is fundamental to advancing our understanding of adult distribution and abundance, population and community variability and hence our ability to manage natural marine systems.



Marine microorganisms predominantly exist in sessile communities rather than as free-living planktonic cells. These sessile communities develop on all surfaces in aqueous environments, as complex surface attached micro-colonies. Such differentiated surface communities, in which bacterial cells are embedded in a macromolecular containing matrix, are called biofilms. Biofilms form on marine eukaryotes (‘living surfaces’) and here space and nutrient limitations create a highly competitive environment. This has allowed surface microbes to evolve both defensive and antagonistic strategies, including the production of toxins and other biologically active secondary metabolites to evade predators and/or prevent the colonisation and growth of competitors.



The Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation (CMB)

The Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation (CMB) is an international focal point for interdisciplinary basic and applied research into chemically mediated interactions between organisms. It drives research excellence on a number of platforms, including microbial biofilms and bacterial signalling, marine chemical ecology, prokaryote-eukaryote interactions, environmental and microbial genomics, colonisation biology of marine sessile organisms, novel antifouling technologies, bioremediation, inter-kingdom signalling and the bridge between environmental microbiology and engineering. Based at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, the CMB integrates research across microbiology, marine chemical ecology, biodiversity, ecological theory, chemistry, and organism and community genomics. The interdisciplinary nature of the Centre is made possible through its organisation and the collaboration between its home Schools of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Chemistry.


Sydney institute for Marine Sciences (SIMS)

Sydney Institute of Marine Science is a collaborative research and training institute bringing together scientists from four member NSW universities plus state and federal marine and environmental agencies. SIMS conducts multidisciplinary marine research on impacts of climate change and urbanisation, biological diversity, fisheries, tourism, coastal development, and marine disease. By bringing together NSW's leading marine scientists at one collaborative site, SIMS will maximise the efficient use of resources for research on Australia's critical coastal environments.


Advanced Environmental Biotechnolgy Centre (AEBC)

The Advanced Environmental Biotechnology Centre is a new Research Centre located within the School of Biological Sciences building. It was set up as part of NTU’s NEWRI Ecosystem. The Centre aims to achieve collaborations with the various Schools and Research Centre within NTU, as well as with other Universities and Research Institutes in Singapore and overseas. The AEBC is well equipped to forge strong research platforms for fundamental and applied environmental microbiology capable of addressing issues that are relevant to Singapore‘s environmental and water industries. The Centre consists of facilities such as Research Staff Office, Research Student Office, Microbial Biotechnology Lab, Bioreactor Engineering Lab, Analytical Biochemistry Lab and Analytical Microbiology Lab.



Dr Sabrina Beckmann

Dr Alexandra Campbell

Dr Martina Erken

Dr Tilmann Harder

Dr Tim Lachnit

Dr Ezequiel Marzinelli


Research Students


Doug Beattie (PhD candidate)

Jacinta Green (PhD candidate) Does fouling affect algae?

Rebecca Neumann (PhD candidate) Environmental stress, chemical defence and disease in the kelp Ecklonia radiata (with Dr Tilmann Harder and Dr Ezequiel Marzinelli)

Alexander Basford (Honours candidate)


Tamsin Peters (PhD candidate)  Environmental change and disease in a habitat forming macroalga (with Dr Alexandra Campbell and Dr Melinda Coleman, Batemans Marine Park)

Galaxy Qiu (Phd candidate)

Shaun Nielsen (PhD 2013) Bacteria on coralline algae as settlement cues for marine invertebrate larvae (with Dr Tilmann Harder, UNSW)

Alexandra Campbell (PhD 2010) – Ecology of bacterially mediated bleaching in a chemically-defended seaweed



BIOS2011  Evolutionary & Physiological Ecology

BIOS3091  Marine & Aquatic Ecology

MSCI0501  The Marine Environment (course co-convenor)




Coleman, MA, Roughan M, Macdonald H, Connell SD, Gillanders BM, Kelaher BP, Steinberg PD (2011) Variation in the strength of continental boundary currents determines continent-wide connectivity in kelp.  J. Ecology, in press.

Gribben P, Jeffs A, De Nys R, Steinberg P (2011) Relative importance of natural cues and substrate morphology for settlement of the New Zealand Greenshell mussel,Perna canaliculus. Aquaculture, in press.

Campbell, A. H., Harder, T., Nielsen, S., Kjelleberg, S. & Steinberg, P. D. (2011) Climate change and disease: bleaching in a chemically-defended seaweed. Global Change Biology (in press) DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2011.02456.x

Wernberg, T, Russell, B D, Moore, P J, Ling, S, Smale, D A, Campbell, AH, Coleman, M A, Steinberg, PD, Kendrick, G A & Connell S D, 2011, 'Impacts of climate change in a global hotspot for temperate marine biodiversity and ocean warming', Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, vol. 400, pp. 7 – 16

Campbell, A. H., Verges, A., Harder, T. & Steinberg, P. D. (2011) Causes and ecological consequences of a climate-mediated disease. Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW (in press).

Case, RJ, Longford, SR, Campbell, AH, Low, A, Tujula, NA, Steinberg, PD & Kjelleberg, S, 2011, 'Temperature induced bacterial virulence and bleaching disease in a chemically defended marine macroalga', Environmental Microbiology, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 529 - 537, 10.1111/j.1462-2920.2010.02356.x

Jayawardena, MB, Yee, LH, Rainbow, IJ, Bergquist, P, Such, CH, Steinberg, PD & Kjelleberg, S, 2011, 'Surfactant enhanced lipase containing films characterized by confocal laser scanning microscopy', Colloids and Surfaces B - Biointerfaces, vol. 82, no. 2, pp. 291 - 296, 10.1016/j.colsurfb.2010.08.042

Tebben, J, Tapiolas, D, Motti, C, Abrego, D, Negri, A, Negri, L, Steinberg, PD & Harder, T, 2011, 'Induction of Larval Metamorphosis of the Coral Acropora millepora by Tetrabromopyrrole Isolated from a Pseudoalteromonas Bacterium', PLOS One, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. e19082

Burke, CM, Thomas, T, Lewis, M, Steinberg, PD & Kjelleberg, S, 2011, 'Composition, uniqueness and variability of the epiphytic bacterial community of the green alga Ulva australisThe ISME Journal, vol. 5, pp. 590 - 600, doi:10.1038/ismej.2010.164



Thomas, T, Rusch, D, De Maere, M, Yung, PY, Lewis, M., Halpern A., Heidelberg, KB., Egan, SG, Steinberg, PD & Kjelleberg, S, 2010, 'Functional genomic signatures of sponge bacteria reveal unique and shared features of symbiosis', ISME JOURNAL, vol. 4, no. 12, pp. 1557 - 1567, 10.1038/ismej.2010.74

Steinberg, PD, Marshall, D, McDougald, D & Kjelleberg, S, 2010, 'Bacteria are more like corals than bees', Science, vol. e-letter published 25 August



Wernberg, T, Campbell, AH, Coleman, M A, Connell S D, Kendrick, G A, Moore, P J, Russell, Smale, D A & Steinberg, PD, 2009, Marine Climate Change in Australia: Impacts and Adaptations Responses, Report Card 2009, NCCARF, Australia, Report Card of Marine Climate Change for Australia, Report Card 2009, Government Report,

Gribben PE, Wright JT, O’Connor WA, Doblin MA, Eyre B, Steinberg PD (2009) Reduced performance of native infauna following recruitment to a habitat-forming invasive marine alga. Oecologia 158:733-745.

Poore AGB, Campbell AH, Steinberg PD (2009) Natural densities of mesograzers fail to limit growth of macroalgae or their epiphytes in a temperate algal bed.  J.  Ecol. 97:164-175

Gribben PE, Wright JT, O’Connor WA, Steinberg P (2009) Larval settlement preference of a native bivalve: the influence of an invasive alga versus native substrata.  Aquatic Biology 7: 217-227

Gribben PE, Byers JE, Clements M, McKenzie LA, Steinberg PD, Wright JT (2009) Behavioural interactions between ecosystem engineers control community species richness. Ecol. Lett. 12:1127-1136.



Vergés A, Paul NA, Steinberg PD (2008) Sex and life history stage alter herbivore responses to a chemically defended red alga. Ecology 89: 1334–1343

Coleman MA, Gaynor  D, Kelaher BP, & Steinberg PD (2008) Characterisation of microsatellite loci in the subtidal habitat-forming alga, Phyllospora comosa(Phaeophyceae, Fucales).  Conservation Genetics 9(2): 1015-1017

Zhu H, Kumar A, Ozkan J, Bandara R, Ding A, Perera I, Steinberg P, Kumar N, Lao W, Griesser S, Britcher L, Griesser HJ, Willcox M (2008) Fimbrolide – coated antimicrobial lenses: their in vitro and in vivo effects. Optometry and Vision Science 85:292-300.

Coleman MA, Kelaher BP, Steinberg PD, Millar AJK (2008) Absence of a large brown macroalga on urbanized rocky reefs around Sydney, Australia, and evidence for historical decline.  J. Phycol.  44:897-901

Matz C, Webb JS, Schupp PJ, Phang SY, Penesyan A, Egan S, Steinberg P, Kjelleberg S (2008) Marine biofilm bacteria evade eukaryotic predation by targeted chemical defense.  PLoS ONE 3:2744-52

Huggett M, Crocetti GR, Kjelleberg S,  Steinberg PD(2008) Recruitment of the sea urchin Heliocidaris erythrogramma and the distribution and abundance of inducing bacteria in the field.  Aq. Microb. Ecology 53:161-171.

Nylund GM, Cervin G, Persson F, Steinberg P, Pavia H (2008) Seaweed defence against bacteria: a poly-brominated 2-hetanone from the red algaBonnemaisonia hamifera inhibits bacterial colonisation. Mar Ecol Prog Ser369:39-50.