A Scientist's Life: Martín Tresguerres

Marine biologist discovers what organisms have in common and what makes them distinct at cellular level

Martín Tresguerres is an associate professor in marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and his PhD from the University of Alberta, Canada, in 2007. He then did postdoctoral training at the Weill Cornell Medical College before joining Scripps in November 2010.

explorations now: What do you do for a living?

Martín Tresguerres: I study the cellular biology of marine organisms. This includes how cells adjust their energy metabolism, sense the environment, and do other essential functions such as growth, calcification, photosynthesis, and pH regulation among many others. This approach is powerful and essential because all aspects of an organism's life, as well as its responses to environmental stress, ultimately depend on these types of cellular mechanisms.

This type of research requires using multiple laboratory techniques to study genes, proteins, metabolites, and cell physiology. We follow up on these lab-based experiments to establish their importance for the whole organism, and ultimately its relevance in the wild.

With coral reefs, we study how they make their skeletons or how they maintain their symbiosis with algae. We also look at sharks and fish and try to understand their physiology; how they can regulate the acidity of their blood for example. The fascinating thing about biology at the cellular level is that cells from a coral or cells from a human, for example, are not that different. They have very similar components that help them to survive, divide, and regulate their pH.

By studying diverse organisms, we can identify common pathways that can tell us a lot about the evolution of these systems, and about specific mechanisms that might allow a coral to build a huge skeleton. And then in turn, by understanding those basic mechanisms, we can try to predict how or if they will be affected by climate change or other environmental stressors.

en: What are some of the main questions in your field?

MT: We're working on several fascinating questions. Some of them are more theoretical, like the evolution of cell diversity and how cells may look very similar to one another in some ways but each has a specialized functions such as making a coral skeleton or regulating pH in the blood. Others are a little bit more applied, like by understanding the physiology of fish and shellfish, we can optimize conditions for aquaculture.

Other questions are related to impacts of climate change or environmental stress. For example, studying how corals make their skeletons allows us to predict and identify which coral species might be more resilient or more vulnerable to climate change.

By studying cell biology of corals, we can look specifically at cells that are involved in making the skeleton or cells that have symbiotic algae living within their tissues. Most other researchers in coral biology analyze the coral as a whole that can provide a lot of useful information, but the unique thing about my research is that we look at specific cells involved in different processes that are important for the coral, specifically calcification or how they make their skeleton, and photosynthesis or how they coordinate their symbiotic algae.

en: What tools do you use in your research?

MT: In my lab, we study mostly molecular and cell biology of marine organisms. That requires specialized tools. We need to be able to visualize cells so the tools that we use are mostly adapted from biomedical sciences developed to study different diseases such as cancer or diabetes.

One of the most exciting projects we have at the moment is collaborating with coral reef ecologists here at Scripps. What do we do is to combine my expertise, which is coral cell biology with their expertise, which is coral reef ecology. We go to a field site in Panama where we collect corals from a reef and we analyze their cell biology. We can look at corals living in different conditions or different depths, so they are adapted to live in a different light or pH or temperature conditions, and study their cell biology to understand how they are able to live in those conditions. So far we have some exciting results showing that different corals respond differently to ocean acidification, for example. This could be very helpful in the future for management and regulation of coral reefs.

We also do what is known as transplant experiments so we collect corals from one site with certain conditions then take them through another site in which they have different conditions and we leave them there for a period ranging from weeks to a year to see if they can adapt to the new conditions.

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

MT: I love being at Scripps because there are such diverse research topics studied by different labs and for me, it's perfect because I compare different organisms that are very diverse, and here I am able to interact with a variety of experts. Some of the best talent in the world is here. I can work together with people who are experts in algae, experts in ocean warming, experts in fish, and that really enhances the breadth of our research.

These are very exciting times to study cell biology and physiology of marine organisms because thanks to new technologies such as bioinformatics, microscopy, and other molecular techniques, we are learning things about organisms that we could not even imagine a few years ago. And that’s one of my favorite things about science: it doesn't matter how long you work on something, there's always something new to discover.

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