Where are you from, and what is your role in Extreme 2003?
I’m a postdoctoral student working with Allison Murray of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. On this expedition, I will be collecting the tiny organisms that live on the hairs of the Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana) and extracting their RNA and DNA. The goal is to use a relatively new scientific technology called microarrays to profile epibiont community gene expression.
What kinds of questions will you try to answer, and why?
One question we are trying to answer is: what are the organisms that live on the hairs of the Pompeii worm doing? Or, put a different way: how do they eke out a living in this extreme environment? Normally, this could be done experimentally in the lab by making observations. For example, we can “feed” yeast a water/flour mixture and “watch” them grow (this is done every time you make bread). If we wanted to quantify this growth we could count cells or measure the by-product of respiration — carbon dioxide. We could make more detailed measurements by growing a lot of yeast and extracting certain cell constituents like enzymes or proteins and measuring function, quantity, and activity. However, in the oceans, most of the organisms responsible for biology cannot be cultivated in the laboratory. We know they are there but we don’t know what they do.
Recent technological advances provide a way to figure out what these organisms are doing. We hope to do this with the symbiotic bacteria associated with the Pompeii worm. High-throughput automated DNA sequencing has made it possible to sequence large parts of this epibiont community. The enormous, increasingly comprehensive genetic database (Genbank) has made it possible to “decode” a lot of the epibiont genome into probable genes. Finally, microarray technology makes it possible to make “chips” of thousands of small spots of these genes. When a cell needs something done, it normally sends a message — these messages are associated with specific genes and functions. For example, when we sit out on the boat too long under the hot sun, our cells send a message to “make us tan” or make more pigment. If we had a microarray of the human genome and we had a collection of all of our messages under two conditions — “sun” and “no sun” — one of the differences in gene expression patterns we would see is in the “make us tan” gene or collection of genes. We will do just this and examine gene expression patterns in this community of bacteria. These data will provide information on what they are doing or how they live.
Why is this research important?
This is important because we need methods to explore how and why organisms thrive in such a wide variety of ocean niches. In situ analysis of gene expression will not only provide information on how organisms grow, adapt, survive, and die but could lead to novel discoveries of metabolic pathways, proteins, and cell products. Some of these might benefit humanity.
What is your educational background? What lured you into marine research?
I received my bachelor’s degree in philosophy and biology from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. I loved living on the water in Maine and decided that I would rather spend my time on the ocean thinking about the meaning of life than pulling my hair out in a small office while contemplating Kant. I spent over a year living in Trondheim, Norway, while on a Fulbright Scholarship working in Egil Sakshaug’s lab. Upon returning to the United States I started working in Oscar Schofield’s lab at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University.
Oceanography is as much an adventure as it is a profession. My adventures have taken me as far north and south as 79° and to six continents. I have shared these adventures with incredibly interesting and bright people. The combination of adventure and intellectual stimulation is intoxicating and makes for a great day in the “office.” I graduated from Rutgers and moved to New York City in 2001 to work in biophysics with David Mauzerall at Rockefeller University. Adventures in New York City are endless. In the spring, I will be joining Alison Murray’s lab in an attempt to become more proficient in genomics.