Matthias Hess



Hess, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, is a systems microbiologist. Hess received his Ph.D. in microbiology and biotechnology from Hamburg University of Technology, Germany. Before joining the UC Davis faculty in 2014, he held a joint appointment at Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Hess also did a postdoctoral fellowship at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute.

Research interests:

Systems microbiology, microbial processes in natural and artificial ecosystems, microbes and microbial enzymes for agricultural, medical, and industrial applications, microbe-host interaction, gastrointestinal microbiology, biofuels, bioproducts, bioremediation, microbial dark matter.

Brief overview:

Microorganisms are ubiquitous. They play a key role in earth's geochemical cycles and in the well-being of humans and animals. Microbes also represent a valuable source of enzymes that are used to improve agriculture, food and biofuel production, and other commercial processes.

Approximately 99 percent of the microorganisms found in an environmental sample can’t be grown in the laboratory. This makes it difficult to understand complex microbial communities and how microbial enzymes affect and respond to changes in the surrounding environment. The fraction of the microbial community that cannot be cultured in a lab is commonly referred to as “microbial dark matter.” My lab conducts research that combines traditional and new techniques to identify, isolate, and characterize microbes and microbial enzymes from microbial dark matter.

Our long term-goal is to understand microbial systems and processes on multiple levels — from molecule, to organism, to community, to ecosystem. We seek to identify microbes and microbial enzymes that will have beneficial applications in agriculture, industry, and medicine.

For example, by studying microbes associated with natural oil seeps in ocean waters off Santa Barbara, we hope to identify enzymes and microbes that degrade hydrocarbons and could be used in bioremediation efforts on accidental oil spills. By understanding microbial processes that occur in the rumen ecosystem of cows, we can help develop strategies that improve animal health and productivity and reduce methane emission from the livestock industry.

Current projects:

  • Microbial communities associated with natural oil seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel: sequencing of environmental DNA to study the microbial community and microbial processes associated with natural crude oils that pollute the marine ecosystem off the Santa Barbara shoreline
  • Functional encyclopedia of Cyanobacteria: development of bioinformatic tools to analyze data and development of techniques for isolating microbes that currently can’t be grown in pure culture
  • The methylome Nostoc punctiforme: understanding the role of genome methylation of Nostoc punctiforme (a cyanobacterium) during the fixation of carbon and nitrogen to facilitate deeper understanding of global carbon and nutrient cycling 
  • Functional and structural characterization of novel carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZymes): understanding the complex network of enzymes that facilitate the breakdown and conversion of carbohydrates to facilitate the design of CAZymes and enzyme cocktails for improved feed utilization, animal performance, and biofuel production
  • Rumen systems microbiology: understanding microbial processes that occur in the rumen ecosystem of cows to develop strategies that improve animal health and productivity and reduce methane emission from the livestock industry


Updated March 2015


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