The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative is investing $8 million over the next two years to support scientists in developing genetic tools designed to enable researchers to understand how microbes function in marine ecosystems and provide the capability to ask scientific questions in ways not currently possible.
Andrew Allen, a joint professor between Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and the J. Craig Venter Institute, will be supported through the program with a $625,529 grant. The Allen lab is engaged in research related to the discovery and identification of gene function in marine diatoms.
Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, with his wife Betty, established the foundation to create positive change for future generations. The Marine Microbiology Initiative (MMI) seeks to gain a comprehensive understanding of marine microbial communities, including their genetic diversity, composition, and function; their ecological role in the oceans; and their contribution to ocean health and productivity. Current focus of the initiative is to advance our understanding of marine microbial communities by enabling research to uncover the principles that govern the interactions among microbes as well as those that govern microbially mediated nutrient flow. To answer questions about the roles that marine microorganisms play at the base of the ocean’s food chain, MMI supports current or emerging leaders in the field through investigator awards, multidisciplinary team research projects, community resource projects, as well as projects to develop new instrumentation, tools and technology.
Diatoms are eukaryotes that have a unique cell wall made from silica. They are key organisms for understanding the environmental health of marine ecosystems and are responsible for much of the carbon and oxygen production in the ocean. Specifically, diatom photosynthesis in ocean environments is responsible for about one-fifth of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Diatoms are also known to produce biomass rich in lipids and fatty acids and as a result are considered excellent targets for research related to production of biofuels and chemicals.
Allen and his team are particularly interested in identifying genes and biochemical pathways that enable diatoms to thrive in nutrient-rich waters across a range of temperate and polar latitudes. Development and optimization of advanced genetic tools and associated resources are key for unlocking the molecular secrets of diatoms.
Model systems, such as the mammalian gut bacterium E. coli for microbiology and the fruit fly for biomedicine, have been invaluable for deciphering complex biology. For example, by studying fruit flies, scientists gained insight into the inheritance of human traits such as eye color. But in the world of marine microbial ecology, there are very few model systems and associated tools that enable scientists to deeply explore the physiology, biochemistry, and ecology of marine microbes, which are key drivers of the ocean’s elemental cycles, influence greenhouse gas levels, and support marine food webs.
Due to their beauty, diversity and widespread distribution, diatoms have long been a source of fascination to those who have observed them. Allen and collaborators recently published a paper outlining new synthetic biology methods to manipulate diatoms by using bacteria to deliver DNA for genetic manipulation.
“By combining those methods with new research supported through the Moore Foundation Experimental Model Systems initiative, I am optimistic that my colleagues and I can develop efficient and reliable methods to make precise, targeted changes to the genome,” said Allen. “The availability of advanced genome editing technology for diatoms will significantly increase the scale and pace of this research and enable studies of diatom ecology and biochemistry and development of biotechnological applications that were not possible previously.”
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