Biologists Tapped for Marine Microbiology Initiative

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has selected two University of Arkansas researchers to participate in an international $8 million initiative to accelerate development of experimental model systems in marine microbial ecology.

Andrew J. Alverson and Jeffrey A. Lewis, assistant professors in the Department of Biological Sciences in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, will use a $164,204 grant from the foundation to study diatoms, one of the world’s most diverse groups of microalgae.

“The overall goal of our project is to expand the number of diatom species that can be genetically transformed,” Lewis said. “Transformation is the genetic alteration of a cell resulting from the uptake of DNA, and is a key first step in the development of model genetic organisms. Despite the importance of diatoms for ocean ecology, only a handful of diatoms can be genetically manipulated, leaving us with an incomplete view of the genes responsible for diatom physiology and diversity.”

A scanning electron micrograph of the marine diatom, Triceratium. } Copyright Elizabeth Ruck

A scanning electron micrograph of the marine diatom, Triceratium. | Images copyright Elizabeth Ruck

With an estimated 200,000 species, diatoms represent one of the most diverse lineages in the “tree of life.” Diatoms are prolific photosynthesizers, responsible for one-fifth of the world’s oxygen, and are a key primary producer for ocean food webs.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative taps into the efforts of more than 100 scientists across 33 institutions with a broad range of expertise to collectively tackle the challenge of developing methods to bring experimental model systems to the ocean.

Currently, researchers have access to powerful tools in biology to help them understand the ocean, such as microscopy and DNA sequencing, but are lacking essential tools in genetics to make robust experimental model systems. Without these tools, scientists are less able to link specific genes to cell behavior or determine how microbes interact within their environment and with one another – critical information for understanding how ocean ecosystems function.

“An important aspect of our grant-making in marine science is to identify opportunities to overcome bottlenecks that are preventing scientific progress, which often requires taking a risk,” said Jon Kaye, program director of the Marine Microbiology Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “We are also working with this group of scientists to broadly share information about their developing genetic techniques – both what is working and what remains unsolved – through online forums such as protocols.io, an open-access repository of science methods.”

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