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
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
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
"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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org