Campus: CSU San Marcos -- December 13, 2002

And the Nomination Goes To.... Emiliania huxleyi DOE Selects Cal State San Marcos Proposal for Genome Sequencing

Because of the work done by two scientists at California State University San Marcos, an environmentally important one-celled marine algae is next in line for complete gene sequencing by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The nomination of Emiliania huxleyi for the DOE's Microbial Genome Program (a spin-off of the Human Genome Project) was made by Cal State San Marcos molecular biologists Betsy Read and Tom Wahlund. The information that will eventually be provided by the sequencing could be useful to scientists working in a wide range of important areas, from unraveling the process global climate change to fabricating artificial materials for novel biomedical applications.

E. huxleyi is the most abundant of the coccolithophorids--phytoplankton distinguished by an intricate armor they construct of calcium carbonate. Although microscopic, when conditions are favorable E. huxleyi and other coccolithophores have the capacity to flourish in massive blooms. The White Cliffs of Dover formed over millions of years as coccolithophores died and their calcium carbonate shells settled on the seabed.

For many years, scientists have studied E. huxleyi on an ecological and physiological level, said Read, because the organism plays such an important role in environmental processes, including heat dissipation in the ocean, paleoclimatology, the cycling of carbon, and sulfur exchange between the ocean and atmosphere.

Read and Wahlund are among a small group of researchers who study the organism at the molecular level, working to understand the nature of the genome and how the microscopic alga forms massive blooms. For the past four years, with funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they've worked to identify the genes involved in the synthesis and assembly of the organism's exquisite calcium carbonate covering.

Read said the organism made an attractive candidate to the DOE for many reasons, including its broad ecological implications and the industrial and biomedical applications that can be derived from understanding how the organism creates its outer covering. Also, the years of research the two scientists have completed provide much of the information needed to start the sequencing program.

"Other factors that make it attractive," said Read, "are the organism's global distribution, small genome size, and its experimental accessibility."

"Having the DOE select this organism to be sequenced," said Wahlund, "is a strong statement about its global importance, and the grant we have received from the NIH points to its potential for biomedical applications."

According to the DOE, the goal of the Microbial Genome Project is to completely sequence the genomes of microbes, which make up sixty percent of the Earth's biomass. They have survived for more than 3.7 billion years and have been found in every environment, surviving extremes of heat, cold, radiation, pressure, salt, and acid. This diversity means that microbes long ago "solved" many problems for which scientists have been actively seeking answers. The DOE plans to use knowledge gained from these microbes in key areas such environmental cleanup, medicine, agriculture, industrial processes, energy production and use, and countering biological threats.

Once the sequencing is completed by scientists at the DOE, which should take about six to eight months and will be funded by the DOE, the raw data will be returned to Cal State San Marcos for annotation. Currently, Read and Wahlund are gathering an international team of researchers to help make sense of the data. They will also call on students to assist in the process.

"Both undergraduate and graduate students will be involved in the annotation," said Read. "This will provide them with experience and will enhance the reputation of the department and university."

Read and Wahlund estimate the annotation process will take about one year. After that, the data will be available to researchers around the world.

Currently, the Cal State San Marcos biology program includes more than 270 undergraduate and 20 graduate students working on a variety of projects. Read and Wahlund are the first team of biologists to work in the university's new Science Hall 2, which opened at the beginning of the fall semester.

Contact: Paige Jennings 760-750-4048

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