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Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Lecturer in Ecology
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • School of Environment, Earth & Ecosystem Sciences
  • karen.olsson-francis

Professional biography

2014 to present date: Independent Research Fellow/ University lecturer in the Department of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems (EEE).

2013: Maternity leave

2012: UK Space Agency Aurora Fellow (part-time)

2011: Maternity leave

2007 to 2012: Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Open University

2005 to 2007: Researcher, Rumen Microbiology Group, AgResearch, New Zealand

2001 to 2004: PhD in Microbiology, University of Otago, New Zealand. Title of thesis: ‘Life at the Extreme Limits: Adaptation to Extreme pH and Temperature’

Research interests

I am currently a lecturer in EEE and also a UK Space Agency Aurora Fellow. My research focuses on understanding how microorganisms can live in extreme environments and their role in biogeochemical cycling. I am particularly interested in microorganisms that live in rocky environments, their diversity, and their role they play in mineral weathering.

My PhD was awarded from the University of Otago in New Zealand where I studied the physiology of microorganisms that live at high temperature and pH. From there I moved on to studying how microorganisms can survive in space. I have been involved in the ESA funded BIOPAN VI and EXPOSE missions, where we have been investigating the effect of low Earth orbit on microbial survival and bio-signatures.

In 2011, I was awarded a UKSA Aurora Fellow to understand how microorganisms live in extreme, rocky environments.  I am using laboratory based experiments and geochemical modelling to identify mineral alterations and secondary mineral formation, which could be used as bio-signatures for life on Mars.

Current Post-Doctoral Researchers:
Nisha Ramkissoon: Contempoaray life in the Solar System (Leverhulme)
Current PhD students:
Alex Price: Biogechemical cycling in extreme environments (STFC)
Peter Woolman: Biogeochemistry in deep surface environmetns: the key for finding potetnial life on Mars (OU)
Ahmed Nawaz: The microbial breakdown on plastics (MCT)
Elliot-Curtis Harper: Biosignitures for life in Mars (STFC)
Previous PhD students:
Euan Monaghan: Constraints of life on Mars (STFC) 
Annika Simpson: Microbial colonisation and weathering of volcanic rocks (STFC)
Paul Wilson: Micro-mineral interactions in anaerobic environments (STFC)
2017:PI STFC grant (The feasibility of contemporary life elsewhere in our Solar System)
2016: PI Leverhume grant (Contempoaray life in the Solar System)
2014: Co-I DEFRA contract (Approaches to decreasing the environmental impact of biodegradable bags)
2011: UKSA Aurora Fellowship


Teaching interests


  • Module Team S206
  • Module Team S250
  • Previously Associate Lecturer on S104
  • Contributed to the Empire of the Microbes short course


Research Activity

Externally funded projects

The feasibility of contemporary life elsewhere in our Solar System

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Lead09/Jan/201708/Jan/2020LEVERHULME The Leverhulme Trust
The aim of this proposal is it determine the feasibility of contemporary life existing elsewhere in the Solar System. To address this aim we will 1) investigate microbial processes that could occur in proposed transient water on the surface of Mars and in the sub-surface oceans of Enceladus and Europa and 2) assess how the geochemistry within these habitable environments would differ over geological timescales in the presence and absence of life. We will use a unique approach, which combines simulation experiments with geochemical modelling.

Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at the Open University

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Co-investigator01/Apr/201431/Mar/2017STFC (Science & Technology Facilities Council)
The aim of our programme in Astronomy & Planetary Science at the Open University (APSOU) is to carryout detailed investigations of the origin and evolution of galaxies, stars and planets with a special emphasis on our own Solar System through a combination of observation, simulation, laboratory analysis and theoretical modelling. Our research is divided into two broad areas, reflecting the historical research strengths. This research programme is well-matched to both nationally- and internationally-agreed research imperatives. In its final report, A Science Vision for European Astronomy2, Astronet’s Science Working Group identified four broad areas of strategic importance; our research covers major topics within each of these areas. APSOU projects also map onto two of the four Science Challenges that form STFC’s Road Map3 for science (‘How did the universe begin and how is it evolving?’ and ‘How do stars and planetary systems develop and is life unique to our planet?’). The present APSOU programme comprises 20 projects (labelled A to T), of which 6 are for consideration by the Astronomy Observation (AO) panel, 1 for Astronomy Theory (AT), and 13 for the Planetary Studies (PL) panel. The AO projects cover the breadth of the 7 themes recognised as UK strengths in the report of STFC’s Astronomy Advisory Panel (AAP), whilst the 13 PL projects are directed towards answering questions raised in two of the three themes identified as UK strengths in the roadmap of STFC’s Solar System Advisory Panel (SSAP)4.


Defining Multiple Characteristic Raman Bands of α-Amino Acids as Biomarkers for Planetary Missions Using a Statistical Method (2016-06)
Rolfe, S. M.; Patel, M. R.; Gilmour, I.; Olsson-Francis, K. and Ringrose, T. J.
Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 46(2) (pp. 323-346)
A Study of the Microbial Community at the Interface between Granite Bedrock and Soil Using a Culture-Independent and Culture-Dependent Approach (2016)
Olsson-Francis, Karen; Pearson, Victoria K.; Schofield, Paul F.; Oliver, Anna and Summers, Stephen
Advances in Microbiology, 6(3) (pp. 233-245)
A culture-independent and culture-dependent study of the bacteria community from the bedrock soil interface (2015-12-15)
Olsson-Francis, Karen; Pearson, Victoria; Boardman, Carl; Schofield, Paul; Oliver, Anna and Summers, Stephen
Advances in Microbiology, 5(13) (pp. 842-857)
Are thermophilic microorganisms active in cold? (2015-07)
Cockell, Charles S.; Cousins , Claire; Wilkinson, Paul T.; Olsson-Francis, Karen and Rozitis, Ben
International Journal of Astrobiology, 14(3) (pp. 457-463)
Cyanobacteria isolated from the high-intertidal zone: a model for studying the physiological prerequisites for survival in low Earth orbit. (2013-10)
Olsson-Francis, Karen; Cockell, Charles and Watson, Jonathan S.
International Journal of Astrobiology, 12(4) (pp. 292-303)
The effect of rock composition on cyanobacterial weathering of crystalline basalt and rhyolite (2012-09)
Olsson-Francis, K.; Simpson, A. E.; Wolff-Boenisch, D. and Cockell, C. S.
Geobiology, 10(5) (pp. 434-444)
Survival of Deinococcus radiodurans against laboratory-simulated solar wind charged particle (2011-11-17)
Paulino-Lima , Ivan Gláucio; Janot-Pacheco, Eduardo; Galante, Douglas; Cockell, Charles; Olsson-Francis, Karen; Brucato, John Robert; Baratta, Giuseppe Antonio; Strazzulla, Giovanni; Merrigan, Tony; McCullough, Robert; Mason, Nigel and Lage, Claudia
Astrobiology, 11(9) (pp. 875-882)
Exposure of phototrophs to 548 days in low earth orbit: microbial selection pressures in outer space and on early earth (2011-05-19)
Cockell, Charles S.; Rettberg, Petra; Rabbow, Elke and Olsson-Francis, Karen
ISME Journal, 5 (pp. 1671-1682)
Molecular characterization and geological microenvironment of a microbial community inhabiting weathered receding shale cliffs (2011-01)
Cockell, Charles S.; Pybus, David; Olsson-Francis, Karen; Kelly, Laura; Petley, David; Rosser, Nick; Howard, Karen and Mosselmans, Fred
Molecular Ecology, 61 (1) (pp. 166-181)
Draft genome sequence of the thermoalkaliphilic Caldalkalibacillus thermarum strain TA2.A1 (2011)
Kalamortz, Falk; Keis, Stefanie; Mcmillan, Duncan G. G.; Olsson, Karen; Stanton, Jo-Ann; Stockwell, Peter; Black, Mik A.; Klingeman, Dawn M.; Land, Miriam L.; Han, Cliff S.; Martin, Stanton L.; Becher, S. Anette; Peddie, Catherine J.; Morgan, Hugh W.; Matthies, Doreen; Preiß, Laura; Meier, Thomas; Brown, Steven D. and Cook, Gregory M.
Journal of Bacteriology, 193(16) (pp. 4290-4291)
Microbial endolithic colonization and the geochemical environment in young seafloor basalts (2010-12-03)
Cockell, C. S.; van Calsteren, Peter; Mosselmans, J. Fred W.; Franchi, Ian A.; Gilmour, Iain; Kelly, Laura; Olsson-Francis, Karen and Johnson, Diane
Chemical geology, 279(1-2) (pp. 17-30)
Microarray analysis of a microbe–mineral interaction (2010-12)
Olsson-Francis, K.; Van Houdt, R.; Mergeay, M.; Leys, N. and Cockell, C. S.
Geobiology, 8(5) (pp. 446-456)
Use of cyanobacteria for in-situ resource use in space applications (2010-08)
Olsson-Francis, Karen and Cockell, Charles
Planetary And Space Science, 58(10) (pp. 1279-1285)
Isolation of novel extreme-tolerant cyanobacteria from a rock-dwelling microbial community by using exposure to low Earth orbit (2010-04)
Olsson-Francis, Karen; de la Torre, Rosa and Cockell, Charles S.
Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 76(7) (pp. 2115-2121)
Experimental methods for studying microbial survival in extraterrestrial environments (2010)
Olsson-Francis, Karen and Cockell, Charles
Journal of Microbiological Methods, 80(1) (pp. 1-13)
Survival of lichens and bacteria exposed to outer space conditions: results of the space Lithopanspermia experiment (2010)
de La Torre, Rosa; Sancho, Leopoldo G.; Horneck, Gerda; de los Ríos, Asunción; Wierzchos, Jacek; Olsson-Francis, Karen; Cockell, Charles; Rettberg, Petra; Berger, Thomas; de Vera, Jean-Pierre P.; Ott, Sieglinde; Frías, Jesus Martinez; Melendi, Pablo Gonzalez; Lucas, Maria Mercedes; Reina, Manuel; Pintado, Ana and Demets, René
Icarus, 208(2) (pp. 735-748)
Survival of akinetes (resting-state cells of cyanobacteria) in low earth orbit and simulated extraterrestrial conditions (2009-12)
Olsson-Francis, Karen; Towner, Martin C.; de La Torre, Rosa and Cockell, Charles S.
Origins Of Life And Evolution Of The Biosphere, 39(6) (pp. 565-579)
Bacteria in weathered basaltic glass, Iceland (2009-10)
Cockell, Charles; Olsson, Karen; Knowles, Felicity; Kelly, Laura; Herrera, Aude; Thorsteinsson, Thorstein and Marteinsson, Viggo
Geomicrobiology Journal, 26(7) (pp. 491-507)
ESA experiment BIOPAN-6-Germination and Growth Capacity of Lichen Symbiont Cells and Ascospores After Space Exposure (2009-08-01)
de Vera, J. P.; Ott, S.; de la Torre, R.; Sancho, L. G.; Horneck, G.; Rettberg, P.; Ascaso, C.; de los Ríos, A.; Wierzchos, J.; Cockell, C.; Olsson, K.; Frías, J. M. and Demets, R.
Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, 39(3) (pp. 359-360)
Alteration textures in terrestrial volcanic glass and the associated bacterial community (2009)
Cockell, C. S. and Olsson-Francis, K.
Geobiology, 7(1) (pp. 50-65)
Mutants of Mycobacterium smegmatis unable to grow at acidic pH in the presence of the protonophore carbonyl cyanide m-chlorophenylhydrazone (2005)
Tran, Sieu L.; Rao, Min; Simmers, Cameron; Gebhard, Susanne; Olsson, Karen and Cook, Gregory M.
Microbiology, 151(3) (pp. 665-672)
Bioenergetic properties of the Thermoalkaliphilic Bacillus sp. Strain TA2.A1 (2003-01)
Olsson, Karen; Keis, Stefanie; Morgan, Hugh W.; Dimroth, Peter and Cook, Gregory M.
Journal of Bacteriology, 185(2) (pp. 461-465)
Amino acid transport by Sphingomonas sp. strain Ant 17 isolated from oil-contaminated Antarctic soil (2003)
Young, Katherine; Brent Seale, R.; Olsson, Karen; Aislabie, Jackie and Cook, Gregory M.
Polar Biology, 26(8) (pp. 560-566)
The anaerobic community of an estuarine environment: an analogue for life on Mars. (2015-04)
Curtis-Harper, Elliot; Olsson-Francis, Karen; Schwenzer, Susanne and Pearson, Victoria
In : 4th UK in Aurora Programme Meeting (15 May 2015, London)
Containers, sensors and samples to understand desert weathering (2015-03)
Schwenzer, S. P.; Barnes, J. J.; Charlier, B. L.; Grady, M. M.; Hall, C.; Melwani Daswani, M.; Morse, A.; Olsson-Francis, K.; Patel, M.; Pearson, V.; Pillinger, J. M.; Preston, L. J.; Sheridan, S.; Sherlock, S. C.; Steer, E. D.; Summers, S.; Verchovsky, S.; Dove-Jay, A. S. ; Jewell, S. and Musilova, M.
In : 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (16-20 March 2015, The Woodlands, TX, USA)
Subsurface Halophiles: An Analogue for Potential Life on Mars. (2015)
Woolman, P. F.; Pearson, V. K.; Cockell, C. S. and Olsson-Francis, K.
In : Life on Earth and Beyond: The History and Philosophy of the Origin of Life (4-6 May 2015, Ven Island, Sweden)
Subsurface Halophiles: An Analogue for Potential Life on Mars (2015)
Woolman, P. F.; Pearson, V. K.; Cockell, C. and Olsson-Francis, K.
In : UK Planetary Forum 12th Early Career Planetary Scientists’ Meeting (19-20 February 2015, University of Kent)
The anaerobic community of an estuarine environment: an analogue for life on Mars (2014-10)
Curtis-Harper, E.; Pearson, V.; Schwenzer, S. and Olsson-Francis, K.
In : 14th European Workshop on Astrobiology: Signatures of life: from gases to fossils (EANA14) (13-16 October 2014, Edinburgh) (p 94)
The anaerobic community of an estuarine environment: an analogue for life on Mars (2014-01)
Curtis-Harper, E.; Pearson, V. K.; Schwenzer, S. P. and Olsson-Francis, K.
In : 12th Early Career Planetary Scientists’ Meeting (19-20 February 2015, University of Kent)
Detecting biomarkers on Mars using Raman spectroscopy (2013-04)
Rolfe, S. M.; Patel, M. R.; Gilmour, I.; Olsson-Francis, K. and Ringrose, T. J.
In : Molecules and Life in Extremes: UK Astrobiology Conference 2013 - (ASB5) (17-19 April 2013, Edinburgh, UK)
Raman spectroscopy of biologically relevant amino acids under martian condtions (2012-04)
Rolfe, S. M.; Patel, M. ; Gilmour, I.; Olsson-Francis, K.; Ringrose, T. J. and Cockell, C.
In : Astrobiology Science Conference 2012 Exploring Life: Past, Present, Near and Far (16-20 April 2012, Atlanta, GA, USA)
Raman spectroscopy of amino acids and other biomarkers on Mars (2011-07)
Rolfe, S. M.; Patel, M. R.; Olsson-Francis, K.; Cockell, C. S. and Ringrose, T. J.
In : 11th European Workshop on Astrobiology (Annual workshop of EANA) (11 - 14 July 2011, Cologne, Germany)
Habitability of the Martian subsurface for methanogenic life (2011-06)
Monaghan, E. P.; Patel, M. R.; Cockell, C. S. and Olsson-Francis, K.
In : Exploring Mars Habitability (13-15 June 2011, Lisbon, Portugal)
Simulating microbe-mineral interactions in the subsurface of Mars (2010-09)
Monaghan, Euan P.; Patel, Manish R.; Cockell, Charles S. and Olsson-Francis, Karen
In : 10th European Workshop on Astrobiology EANA 2010 (6-8 September 2010 , Pushchino, Russia )