Professor Developing Methods to Understand, Stop Algal Bloom Damage

A UT professor is working to develop methods that could help scientists understand and stop massive algal blooms that destroy marine habitat along the US Eastern Seaboard.

Steven WilhelmSteven Wilhelm, Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professor in the Department of Microbiology, has received a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for the work.

He is one of more than 100 scientists across thirty-three institutions worldwide who are being supported by the foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative through an $8 million investment aimed at accelerating the development of methods that will bring experimental model systems to the ocean and other areas of marine microbial ecology. The foundation also supports the development of genetic approaches to study single-celled algae, called picoeukaryotes, and the potential of this research to transform the algae’s use in research, industry and biotechnology.

Wilhelm is leading a team that includes Tim Sparer, Erik Zinser, and Todd Reynolds, all UT associate professors of microbiology, and Willie Wilson, director of the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in the United Kingdom.

Wilhelm’s team plans to develop a genetic system for Aureococcus anophagefferens—the alga that causes brown tides. The massive algal blooms destroy marine habitat along the US eastern seaboard, causing losses of more than $50 million per year. By modifying the organism’s genes, Wilhelm and his team hope to further understanding of the alga’s ecology and evolution and provide potential for biotechnological advances such as biofuels.

“Genetic systems are different for almost every organism, so while we have knowledge we have gained from bacteria and yeast on how to modify genes, this effort for algae will have to start from the beginning,” Wilhelm said. “We will employ a series of biomolecular approaches as well as a recently isolated giant virus, called AaV, in this process. The virus seems to naturally move genes around and we want to take advantage of this trait. The end goal will be to use this tool to understand why this tiny alga has grown so prolifically over the last thirty years in our coastal oceans.”

Wilhelm said the support from the Moore Foundation also will allow researchers with unique expertise to come together and solve the problem of genetics in single-celled algae called picoeukaryotes.

“Taking advantage of genomic information for the alga and a giant virus that infects it, much of which was generated at UT, we anticipate being able to begin to modify the genome of this algae so as to begin to understand how it dominates communities along the US Eastern Seaboard,” he said. “We are excited by the prospect of a group of scientists with very different backgrounds being able to work together on this project.”

The grant, about $165,000, will allow Wilhelm and his team to support a postdoctoral student, a part-time graduate student, and a part-time technician for a year. The team will administer the grant as a collective.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements, and preservation of the special character of the San Francisco Bay area.



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