Gene-editing tools developed to study ocean microbes

Researchers have achieved significant progress in the development of gene-editing tools that could help gain better insights into one of the most crucial ocean microbes on the planet.

Gene-editing tools developed to study ocean microbes to develop natural products
Image Credit: University of East Anglia

The international study, which was co-led by researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the United Kingdom, uncovers the potential of the largest unexploited genetic resource for developing natural products such as novel antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and anti-parasitic compounds.

Ocean microbes take part in the regulation of the global cycles of carbon and other vital nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. Although these microbes are highly significant, government and industry funding is widely used only for the research and development with non-marine organisms.

This is partially because of the inadequate awareness about the significance of marine microbes, restricted knowledge on their biology, and also the difficulties involved in accessing and sustainably using them.

To address this issue, genetic manipulation tools are required, which are not readily available for several different biotechnologically and ecologically significant groups of marine microbes like the protists, which share a subcellular organization similar to that of plants and animals.

In contrast to plants and animals, they are unicellular and highly diverse. A few of them represent the origins of complicated life forms on land, and others like photosynthetic protists called phytoplankton make a huge contribution to global annual carbon fixation similar to land plants.

The new study published in the Nature Methods journal aims to improve the understanding of basic biology and evolution of marine protists, with prospectively valuable findings for biotechnology, evolutionary studies, medicine, nanotechnology, and pharmacology.

The three-year collaborative project mainly supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation included 53 international laboratories with more than 100 researchers. It led to the development of new genetic model systems, outlined in a synthetic “Transformation Roadmap.”

This map describes DNA delivery methods, gene expression constructs, and genome editing approaches, and is accessible as a resource for the research community. According to the lead author of the study Thomas Mock, professor of marine microbiology at UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, the research builds on decades of studies that have helped achieve a highly coherent picture of the oceanic ecosystem.

The oceans harbor the most significant microbial diversity on Earth in terms of maintaining habitability. These organisms and how their genes function are therefore incredibly important to understand because of their vital role in the health of the planet. They also represent how life has evolved over the last 1.5 billion years. They are so old that it’s not been possible to fully understand their cell biology and functional biodiversity.”

Thomas Mock, Professor, Department of Marine Microbiology, University of East Anglia School of Environmental Sciences

Mock added, “Our reported breakthroughs on genetic manipulation will allow the research community to dissect cellular mechanisms from a range of important protists, which will collectively provide insights into their reproduction, metabolism and signaling.”

These insights will improve our understanding about their role in the oceans, and they are invaluable for biotechnological applications such as building factories for biofuel or the production of bioactive compounds.”

Thomas Mock, Professor, Department of Marine Microbiology, University of East Anglia School of Environmental Sciences

As part of the study, attempts were made to introduce foreign DNA into the host genomes of 39 protist species to gain insights into the functions of genes and how they adapt to changes.

Out of these, over 50% were genetically modified successfully, which will allow the researchers to perform functional studies of thousands of novel genes carried in their genomes.

Source:
Journal reference:

Faktorova, D., et al. (2020) Genetic tool development in marine protists: Emerging model organisms for experimental cell biology. Nature Methods. doi.org/10.1038/s41592-020-0796-x.

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