Dr. Jean-Marie Volland, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at UC Santa Barbara, is delving into the micro-world beyond the scope of the microscope.

He discovered a species of bacterium called Thiomargarita magnifica, a microorganism so large in size that a single cell can be seen with the naked eye. This is the largest bacteria ever to be found, measuring up to 0.8 inches. Additionally, he found that within the bacteria were structures called pepins, similar to the nuclei in our own cells, with over 11,000 genes that could potentially lead to new antibiotics being produced. He is among the first researchers to discover bacteria of this size and its intracellular compartments. 

“Microbes have been here since nearly the dawn of time, inhabiting every corner of the world, from the deepest oceans to the skies above and even in and on our own bodies,” Volland said. “Yet, despite centuries of study, we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding them.”

Volland’s research seeks to deepen the knowledge of uncultivated microbes that have not yet been cultured in a lab. Genomic techniques and microscopy are used by Volland and his lab to study microbes from lesser-explored environments like hydrothermal vents and mangroves. Not only does he aim to identify their characteristics, but also the reason for their existence. 

Volland joined the UCSB campus in Nov. 2023. His journey, though, is a unique one. Growing up in Guadalupe, he has always been passionate about freediving and exploring the marine life of the island. In the third year of his bachelor’s degree there, he discovered his passion for research while interning at a lab where he collected samples from different places around the island. While pursuing his master’s degree, Volland began to study microbiology and was intrigued by the cellular structures he was studying.

“I started to use electron microscopy to study the structure and organization of cells and I was completely amazed by the beauty and complexity of life at the cellular level,” Volland said. “It was like discovering a completely new and invisible world.”  

He went on to continue his academic career in Guadeloupe with a Ph.D. at the University of Antilles. He studied the beneficial symbioses, long-term biological interactions between two different species of sea snails and microscopic organisms called Sporozoans. Following a gap year, Volland completed two postdoctoral positions at the University of Vienna. This time, he focused on chemosynthetic symbiosis, a type of symbiotic relationship in which microbes use chemical energy to create biomass that can feed animals and protists living near hydrothermal vents. 

Before becoming an assistant professor at UCSB, Volland was a scientist at the Laboratory for Research in Complex Systems. He was hosted as an affiliate scientist at the Joint Genome Institute, a facility at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There, he led the pioneering research on giant chemosynthetic bacteria. At UCSB, he is excited to continue exploring the uncharted territories of microbial life and hopes to use the new CryoEM facility to perform cryo-electron microscopy directly on campus.

“This will allow us to visualize frozen-hydrated microbes in their close-to-native state with molecular resolution,” Volland said. 

Aside from hypothesis-driven science, Volland believes curiosity and observation-driven research is essential. He hopes to continue discovery-based and exploratory projects in his lab. 

Volland is excited to not only continue challenging what is known about his field of study but also inspire the next generation of scientists at UCSB. He believes that when students can “dive into a topic on their own, and then come together in class,” they are able to interact with their peers as well as learn the information in a dynamic way. 

“I want my lab to be a safe, welcoming environment where every student can thrive and I believe UCSB is the perfect place for this,” Volland said. “My goal is to foster a positive and inclusive atmosphere where everyone feels valued and supported.”

Volland hopes to continue breaking new ground in the world of microbiology in collaboration with UCSB faculty, students, and staff.

“Ultimately, it’s about pushing the boundaries of microbiology, exploring how these microorganisms defy the rules and what that means for our broader understanding of life itself,” Volland said. “It’s a journey of discovery, one that I believe holds untold insights into the most fundamental processes of life.”