Grant allows for research of marine microbes

Washington State University is a part of an $8 million grant effort to better understand microbial organisms in a marine environment.

“At present, scientists are limited to rudimentary studies,” said George Bonheyo, a research professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at WSU.

The Voiland College, in cooperation with WSU, has developed several research focus areas, like the environment, food, energy and water.

“It fits into where WSU says we want to go as an institution and ties into other research we do in the department very well,” said Jim Peterson, director of the Voiland College.

The program will also give post-doctorate researchers and undergraduate students opportunities to network with scientists in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, who holds a joint appointment for this grant and others with WSU. 

The two-year grant will go to an international team of more than 100 scientists at 33 institutions supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative (MBI).

“There are trillions of trillions of microbes in the ocean, which means they play a large role in marine ecosystems,” said Jon Kaye, program director of the MBI, “by supporting research, we will better understand how they respond and contribute to why the ocean may change with time.”

Bonheyo and other researchers will create small pieces of DNA that can be used to introduce genes into specific cells, such as proteins with fluorescent tags to measure how much an existing gene is expressed or identify cells that have been modified.

“Right now the goal of the study is to find what organisms are present, what they produce and how they reproduce,” Bonheyo said.

The researchers are developing different techniques to introduce DNA:

-Conjugation, a process where DNA is transferred from one cell to another;

-biolistics, microscopic beads coated with DNA which are shot into cells;

-thermal or chemical permeation, which involves using heat or chemicals to dissolve the cell wall so it can absorb DNA,

-viruses to carry DNA to cells.

These DNA tools are needed by researchers to effectively study carbon and nutrients cycling in the ocean.

With the current research tools, scientists can only observe the speed of the cells’ growth, their diet and the genes they express.

An analogy Bonheyo used was studying highway pollution by studying the color of vehicles on the highway and in parking lots.

“With these new genetic tools, we will have the ability to understand the difference between a Prius and an SUV, or what happens when you change the quality of gasoline, how an engine is tuned, or the speed at which each vehicle is driving,” Bonheyo said.

Substantial funding is often difficult for researchers to acquire, especially in areas that may not yield concrete results.

The purpose of this grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is to increase the genetic tools available to the marine microbe research community.

“Here we can support scientists to take the risk of spending time of this type of difficult effort that may not bear fruit in the end,” Kaye said. “But if it does succeed, it will be a big win for the researchers and the field more broadly.”