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SBU Researchers Collaborate on Genetic Tool Development in Marine Protists

For the past several years, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences Associate Professor Jackie Collier and PhD candidate Mariana Rius, along with Associate Professor Joshua Rest from the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Ecology and Evolution, developed the tools and methodology for genetically transforming a single-celled marine fungus-like organism known as Aurantiochytrium limacinum ATCC MYA-1381. The three were among more than 100 scientists spanning 41 research groups across the globe who collaborated on the development of genetic tools in 39 evolutionarily diverse unicellular marine eukaryotes (protists).

Mariana Rius, SoMAS PhD candidate
Mariana Rius, SoMAS PhD candidate

Their paper, Genetic Tool Development in Marine Protists: Emerging Model Organisms for Experimental Cell Biology, appears in the April issue of Nature Methods and was referred to by one of the paper’s reviewers as “a great resource that will be used for years to come as an authoritative encyclopedia of genetic manipulation of protists.” 

These genetic tools are the primary means in which an understudied and generally underappreciated marine microbe emerges into a model organism. Expanding the evolutionary as well as the ecological breadth of diverse eukaryotes that can undergo genetic modification creates the foundation for questions regarding eukaryotic cell biology, evolution, ecology, metabolism, reproduction, etc. to be addressed head on. These eukaryotes play an enormous role in the ocean’s biogeochemical cycling and are an integral component of marine food webs.

“It is through this kind of ‘risky’ work that our scope and understanding of what is actually happening in our oceans truly gets to expand,” Rius said. This exploratory and pioneering work is an example of “building a well-connected community to overcome technical challenges and accelerate the development of genetic tools.” (Faktorova et al., 2020). 

Top left: A brightfield microscope image of a wild-type Aurantiochytrium cell; bottom left: a brightfield microscope image of an Aurantiochytrium cell genetically engineered to express green fluorescent protein (GFP); top right/bottom right: matching fluorescence microscope images of the same two cells, showing that the genetically modified cell now fluorescences green thanks to its GFP gene (the scale bar represents 10μm)
Top left: A brightfield microscope image of a wild-type Aurantiochytrium cell; bottom left: a brightfield microscope image of an Aurantiochytrium cell genetically engineered to express green fluorescent protein (GFP); top right/bottom right: matching fluorescence microscope images of the same two cells, showing that the genetically modified cell now fluorescences green thanks to its GFP gene (the scale bar represents 10μm)

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Experimental Model Systems (EMS) Strategy extended far beyond financial support; EMS specific sessions and events at conferences, monthly webinars and a Protist Research to Optimize Tools in Genetics (PROT-G) community facilitated troubleshooting, brainstorming and implementing new ideas and approaches in overcoming the challenges ingrained in the very nature of these kinds of research advancements.

The Moore Foundation’s EMS investment to support scientists worldwide in the development of marine microbial experimental model systems has raised the bar in the sort of questions ecologists, cell biologists and researchers worldwide can ask when looking at the diversity of protists and the complexities of our oceans.

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