The Environmental Microbiology Initiative (EMI) was established in 2007 as part of a major investment by UNSW to foster the growth of Strategic Priority areas of research excellence. UNSW is the nation's leading University in environmental microbiology research, with major programs in Antarctic, marine and freshwater microbiology and ecology, with particular strengths in microbial genomics and proteomics.

The EMI was founded on the strength of the individual research programs of Rick Cavicchioli, Staffan Kjelleberg and Brett Neilan that collectively create synergestic programs in environmental microbiology. Each of these programs addresses globally relevant research themes in environmental microbial genomics, environmental health and sustainability, water quality and water re-use, microbial processes and climate change, biotechnology, bioremediation, biodiversity and conservation, and bioprospecting and drug discovery. The research themes translate fundamental discovery science using the latest enabling technologies in the biosciences into practical societal and economic benefits.