At a Glance

Founded2007
Renewal dates2012
Members28
SupportersGoverment of British Columbia
PartnersGordon and Betty Moore Foundation
Disciplines
Microbiology; evolutionary biology; bioinformatics; biochemistry and molecular biology; cell biology; marine and freshwater biology; oceanography; ecology; genetics; taxonomy; mycology; virology; zoology

How do microbes shape our world and ourselves?

For almost the entire history of life on Earth there were only microbes, and even today microbes are by far the most common forms of life. They live in the air, water and soil of every part of the planet, and form the foundation of every known ecosystem. Even our own bodies contain 10 times more microbes than human cells, and many are vital for good health.

Despite its importance, the microbial world remains largely an undiscovered country. Fewer than 1 per cent of all microbial species have been identified, leaving huge gaps in our overall understanding of life. But now the Integrated Microbial Biodiversity program is bringing diverse researchers together who are using cutting edge technologies in molecular and computational biology to understand the vast and largely unknown microbial world. Their work is throwing open new windows on our understanding of the environment, evolution, and human health.

Our unique approach

In 2007, CIFAR set up the Integrated Microbial Biodiversity program to explore the world of microbes with the aim to bridge gaps between related but disparate fields. The program brings together top scientists from around the world in bacteriology, virology, protistology and parasitology, focusing on ecology, statistics, genetics, immunology, and Earth science. This diversity of perspectives allows a more holistic view that identifies the interactions within an ecosystem which were previously unknown, as well as developing basic principles about microbial biology and interactions.

Ongoing collaborations have allowed program researchers to become leaders in new and powerful approaches like single cell genomics and metagenomics, where advanced genetic sequencing techniques can be used to create sequences of every kind of microbe in an environment. These genetic fingerprints are used to construct a big picture of the kinds of life in an ecosystem, and the often relationships among them.

Why this matters

Through its study of microbes, the CIFAR program team is exploring the complex evolutionary past, how these events shaped the biological present, and what may be in store for the future. The impact of its research is far-reaching, with implications for biology, industry, environmental policy, climate and medicine.

We are just beginning to appreciate the extent to which microbes are important for maintaining human health. We now know that they are responsible for basic functions such as synthesis of vitamins and amino acids, digestion of food, strengthening the immune system, and preventing pathogens from invading tissues and organs. Variations in the microbiome have also been linked to conditions as diverse as Crohn’s disease and depression.

Microbes play a vital role in maintaining the environment through processes including soil and cloud formation, the cycling of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and all other geochemical cycles that are central to life. Microbes in the oceans are responsible for half of the Earth’s net uptake of carbon dioxide, and understanding their biology can help predict their responses to external forces, including climate change, ocean acidification, alterations to the marine food web, and ultimately the future health of oceans.

Fossils tell us that massive extinctions in the past were linked to large-scale environmental changes. With the world experiencing another major change and the associated decline in diversity, and climate change threatening to speed the process, the work of the CIFAR team in understanding the nature and rate of this decline is essential.

MALLOMO2 - Keeling - cropped.2007
A photo taken with a scanning electron microscope the external scales of the chrysophyte Mallomonas sp. Photo by Brian S. Leander

In depth

The program aims to create a deeper understanding of the diversity of microbial life, and interactions among microbes and between microbes and macroscopic plant and animal life.

Exploring novel forms of life

Since its launch, exploration has been a key element of the program. CIFAR exploration has focused on promising diversity hotspots including:

  • extreme environments – low oxygen and high salt
  • high diversity environments – intertidal zones, open ocean, and coral reefs
  • environments rich in symbiotic interactions – arthropod tissues
  • parasites

Program researchers have also used phylogenetic information to untangle the evolutionary relationships among specific lineages for deep surveys, including alveolates, anaerobes, viruses, fungi, and marine unicellular green algae. Surveys like these promise insights into the evolution of important diseases ranging from malaria to the Irish potato famine, and relationships between lineages, such as the importance of opisthokonts in clarifying the relationship between animals and fungi, which diverged from a common ancestor a billion years ago.

CIFAR fellows are pioneers in novel uses of genomics, including metagenomic methods where whole environments are assessed at once, or single-cell methods where the genes expressed in an individual cell are extracted and characterized. They conducted the first comprehensive analysis of the metabolic processes occurring in microbial and viral communities in several major ecosystems. And they have revealed that viral communities serve as repositories for storing and sharing genes, and thereby influence global evolutionary and metabolic processes.

imb.curacao.field.trip
Collecting samples during a field trip to the CARMABI Research Institute on the island of Curacao

Identifying mechanisms of biological innovation

Program researchers are studying how cellular complexity changes over time, the rule of symbiotic and pathogenic interactions in generating biological innovation, and the genetic basis and mechanism of multicellularity.

A study led by Fellow Nicole King suggests that bacteria may have played a key role in our evolutionary history.  By studying choanoflagellates, single-celled organisms found in both fresh and marine waters around the world, she found that bacteria and the molecules they produce may have triggered single-celled organisms to form colonies, leading to the evolution of multi-celled animals, including humans.

 A team led by Program Director and Senior Fellow Patrick Keeling studies the genomics, evolution, and cell biology of protists and fungi  — microbial eukaryotes  of great complexity at the cellular and molecular levels. The team’s focus on cellular organelles such as mitochondria and plastids has improved understanding of how the process of endosymbiosis, or the merging of two cells, can lead to a new life form with characteristics different from either of the partners.

Keeling’s work on parasitism and how sophisticated intracellular parasites arise from free-living ancestors has shed light on how this process affects their cells, genomes, and metabolism. It also contradicts existing textbook theories about the origin of parasitism. Knowledge arising from the research could eventually be useful for fighting parasites that affect human health.

A recent collaboration between Senior Fellows Brian Leander, Keeling, and Curtis Suttle addressed how complexity is built in biological systems. Their study of the ocelloid, a complex sub cellular structure of dinoflagellate algae that resembles a larval eye, found that the eye is composed of normal parts of the cell that have been repurposed for a new function.

Connecting community structure, ecology and global change

CIFAR researchers have attempted to relate the structure of microbial communities to the physical properties of their environment, and understand how changes to that environment affect the ecological function of its inhabitants. Specifically, they’ve looked at how particular communities influence larger-scale ecosystem dynamics.

Program members have studied the importance of microbial biodiversity in the oceans. For example, Senior Fellow Alexandra Worden discovered genes that help the green algae Micromonas capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transport it to the depths of the ocean. This activity influences the carbon cycle, a critical factor of climate change. And Senior Fellow Alastair Simpson  has studied organisms with the remarkable ability to grow and persist in a harsh world without oxygen.

Fellow Mike Grigg and his team have found the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, present in cat feces and kitty litter, infecting Arctic beluga whales for the first time, prompting new investigations to determine if climate change is contributing to the emergence of common food-borne pathogens in the North. This cat parasite, which is common in temperate climates, has found its way into waterways and into the bodies of about 14 per cent of western Arctic beluga whales, which are an important traditional staple of Inuit diet.

In 2014, Keeling, along with Fellow John McCutcheon and Advisor W. Ford Doolittle, curated a prestigious Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The colloquium was called Symbiosis becoming permanent: The origins and evolutionary trajectories of organelles, and explored the origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts from symbiotic relationships between microorganisms. Results of the colloquium will be published as a special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Senior Fellow John Archibald has written a book, One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the evolution of complex life. It explores how single-celled organisms came together billions of years ago and laid the building blocks for the development of complex life.

Senior Fellow Forest Rohwer co-authored the book Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas. It explored how coral reefs depend on a complex network of other living things, including microbes, and how these delicate relationships are threatened by human activity.

Selected papers

King et al, “The genome of the choanoflagellate Monosiga brevicollis and the origins of metazoan multicellularity,” Nature 451, 7180 (2008): 783-8 doi:10.1038/nature06617.

Fischer et al, “Giant virus with a remarkable complement of genes infects marine zooplankton,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, (2010): 19508-19513 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1007615107.

Gray et al., “Irremediable Complexity?” Science 330, 6006 (2010): 920-921 doi: 10.1126/science.1198594.

P. Keeling et al, “The Marine Microbial Eukaryote Transcriptome Sequencing Project (MMETSP): Illuminating the Functional Diversity of Eukaryotic Life in the Oceans through Transcriptome Sequencing,” PLOS Biology 12, 6 (June 24, 2014) doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001889.

Keeling PJ, McCutcheon J, Doolittle WF, “Symbiosis becoming permanent: survival of the luckiest,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, 33 (2015): 10101-10103 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1513346112.

A.Z. Worden et al, “Rethinking the marine carbon cycle: factoring in mutifarious lifestyles of microbes,” Science 347, 6223 (2015) doi: 10.1126/science.1257594.

Fellows & Advisors

Photo of Patrick Keeling

Patrick Keeling

Program Director

Patrick Keeling’s research group studies the genomics, evolution and cell biology of protists and fungi, both microbial eukaryotes (cells that store their genetic material in a nucleus) of great complexity…

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Fellows

John Archibald

Senior Fellow

Dalhousie University

Canada

Yan Boucher

Fellow

University of Alberta

Canada

Nicolas Corradi

Fellow

University of Ottawa

Canada

Michael E. Grigg

Fellow

National Institutes of Health

United States

Steven Hallam

Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Nicole King

Senior Fellow

University of California, Berkeley

United States

Brian S. Leander

Senior Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Julius Lukeš

Senior Fellow

University of South Bohemia, Czech Academy of Sciences

Czech Republic

John McCutcheon

Fellow

University of Montana

United States

Steve J. Perlman

Fellow

University of Victoria

Canada

Adrián Reyes-Prieto

Fellow

University of New Brunswick

Canada

Thomas A Richards

Fellow

University of Exeter

United Kingdom

Andrew Roger

Senior Fellow

Dalhousie University

Canada

Forest Rohwer

Senior Fellow

San Diego State University

United States

Alyson Santoro

Associate Fellow

University of Maryland

United States

Alastair Simpson

Senior Fellow

Dalhousie University

Canada

Claudio Slamovits

Fellow

Dalhousie University

Canada

Curtis A. Suttle

Senior Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Laura Wegener Parfrey

Associate Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Alexandra Zoe Worden

Senior Fellow

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

United States

Advisors

E. Virginia Armbrust

Advisor

University of Washington

United States

Thomas Cavalier-Smith

Advisor

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

W. Ford Doolittle

Advisor

Dalhousie University

Canada

Ursula Goodenough

Advisor

Washington University in St. Louis

United States

Michael W. Gray

Advisory Committee Chair

Dalhousie University

Canada

Joseph Heitman

Advisor

Duke University

United States

John W. Taylor

Advisor

University of California, Berkeley

United States

Program Timeline

CIFAR launches the program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity

CIFAR launches the program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity under the

Closest known relative to animals sequenced

CIFAR Fellow Nicole King (University of California, Berkeley) and colleagues

Cystic Fibrosis patients’ viruses analyzed

CIFAR Senior Fellow Forest Rohwer’s (San Diego State University) lab

Largest virus ever found described

CIFAR Senior Fellow Curtis Suttle (University of British Columbia) describes

New lineage of algae identified

CIFAR senior fellows Alexandra Worden (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

Bacterium triggers plankton’s transformation

Senior Fellow Nicole King’s (University of California, Berkeley) team discovers

New genetic data collection

An international collaboration called the Marine Microbial Eukaryotic Transcriptome Sequencing

Convergent evolution of an “eye”

A team of collaborators, including CIFAR Senior Fellows Brian Leander

Bacteria, Archaea, Eukaryotes, and viruses display an incredible range of morphologies

2007

CIFAR launches the program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity

CIFAR launches the program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity under the direction of Patrick Keeling (University of British Columbia) to explore the diverse microbial world that surrounds and permeates human life. This research has the potential to transform how we think about biodiversity, health a sustainable environment and the field of evolutionary biology.

Credit: Stefan Luketa

Monosiga brevicollis, part of the bacterial species that is the closest known relatives of animals

2008

Closest known relative to animals sequenced

CIFAR Fellow Nicole King (University of California, Berkeley) and colleagues publish the genome of the bacterium Monosiga. Monosiga and its relatives, known as opisthokonts, are the closest known relatives of animals, making them of tremendous evolutionary significance. Exploring their genomes is helping us understand the genetic toolkit that allowed multicellular life to evolve.

Credit: Kelly Michals and PJ Mixer / Flickr

The gene sequences of microbes and viruses can indicate their native environment

2008

Metagenomics predicts environments

CIFAR Senior Fellow Forest Rohwer’s (San Diego State University) lab analyzes the metabolic processes that help microbes grow and survive in various environments. They compare 15 million gene sequences from the collections of microbes and viruses in nine environments, including mine, freshwater and marine samples. The study shows that metagenomics can reveal details about the environment where organisms have evolved. Researchers can predict the biogeochemical conditions of any environment based on the differences between the microbiomes. They also find that the viromes have encoded metabolic abilities from the microbes, which suggests viruses could store and share genes among the microbes they inhabit, influencing the evolution of life in various ecosystems.

Credit: Benjamin Darby

A pen and ink rendering of phage for the book Life in Our Phage World (Wholon, 2014)

2009

Cystic Fibrosis patients’ viruses analyzed

CIFAR Senior Fellow Forest Rohwer’s (San Diego State University) lab uses methods for studying marine microbes to study the viral communities of Cystic Fibrosis patients as compared to those who don’t have the disease. The researchers find that the airways of Cystic Fibrosis patients share very similar communities of phage — viruses that infect bacteria — whereas healthy people have a more distinct collection of these microbial viruses. This is likely because healthy people constantly breathe in different microbes, but their bodies are very good at clearing out bacteria and viruses. Those with CF have thick mucus, low pH and areas of low oxygen within their airways, which allows certain microbes to stay in their bodies much longer and proliferate. The results suggest that treatments for cystic fibrosis should perhaps focus on changing the internal environment that allows certain bacteria and viruses to thrive, rather than targeting the microbes themselves with antibiotics.

Credit: Hallam Lab

Hallam and Walsh investigate dead zones in the Saanich Inlet, which are increasing due to climate change

2009

Oxygen dead zone microbe sequenced

CIFAR Fellow Steven Hallam (University of British Columbia) and CIFAR Associate David Walsh (Concordia University) investigate the biodiversity of microbes in areas near the Saanich Inlet with very low levels of dissolved oxygen. Very few organisms can survive in these “dead zones,” which are expanding because of climate change and contribute greenhouse gases to the ocean’s ecosystem. The researchers sequence the metagenome of a microbe that lives in oxygen-deprived zones worldwide, called SUP05, for the first time. They find that SUP05 is related to bacterium that lives in symbiosis with deep-sea clams and mussels, but rather than breathing oxygen, it breathes nitrate. SUP05 helps to create a “sink” for carbon dioxide and removes other toxic chemicals from the ocean, but it also produces nitrous oxide, an even more potent greenhouse gas. The study is an important step in understanding the bacterium’s role in ecosystems and the impact it may have as the environment changes.

Credit: Tamara Clark

Scientific illustration of the Cafeteria roebergensis phytoplankton

2010

Largest virus ever found described

CIFAR Senior Fellow Curtis Suttle (University of British Columbia) describes the largest virus ever found in the ocean, and the second largest virus ever to be found, that infects what could be the ocean’s most populous predator, a bacteria-eating phytoplankton called Cafeteria roenbergensis. Cafeteria roenbergensis virus, or CroV, contradicts the common definition of a virus; it has many more genes than most viruses and it creates its own proteins. The research attracts much attention from the media including a story in the Economist, and it has since caused scientists to question and challenge the definition of “non-living” and “living” entities. Abundant zooplankton like Cafeteria roenbergensis are essential components of the ocean’s food chain, therefore learning what ails them helps us better understand marine ecosystems.

Credit: Shutterstock

Some organisms, like mitochondria, were once separate from humans but may have developed symbiotic relationships by chance

2010

Theory of ‘cellular bureaucracy’ developed

CIFAR Program Director Patrick Keeling (University of British Columbia), Advisor Michael Gray and senior fellows John Archibald, W. Ford Doolittle (all Dalhousie University) and Julius Lukeš (University of South Bohemia) devise a powerful model to explain why cells seem unnecessarily complex from the perspective of evolution by natural selection. They call the theory, which emerges directly from discussions at Integrated Microbial Biodiversity meetings, “constructive neutral evolution” or “cellular bureaucracy.” It suggests that adaptation may not explain how all of life’s genetic complexity develops. Instead, chance might play a greater role than previously thought, leading organisms to become dependent on one another through symbiotic relationships that have no clear benefit. They give the example of the once-separate organisms that now make up mitochondria.

Credit: Shutterstock

Drosophila neotestacea

2010

Fruit fly found to resist infection with symbiosis

CIFAR Fellow Steve Perlman (University of Victoria) discovers a symbiotic relationship that helps a species of fruit fly defend itself against a damaging parasite. Nematode worm parasites often prey on the fly Drosophila neotestacea, which renders the fruit fly sterile. However, the fly has evolved to resist the infection by adopting a bacterium that prevents sterility. The symbiotic relationship appears to have spread rapidly among North American fruit flies, providing an example of evolution at high speed. An understanding of defensive symbionts could eventually help prevent human infections from biting flies that carry parasites.

Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Fluorescence micrographs of rappemonads in the North Pacific

2011

New lineage of algae identified

CIFAR senior fellows Alexandra Worden (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), John Archibald (Dalhousie University) and Associate Thomas Richards (Natural History Museum) discover a lineage of algae that is completely new to science — Rappemonads. The widespread algae is missing from ecosystem models, making this finding a crucial addition to our understanding of life.

Credit: Claudio Slamovits / Flickr

Oxyrrhis marina, a microbial predator uses a protein acquired from a bacterium to harvest energy from sunlight

2011

New protein that helps photosynthesis found

CIFAR Senior Fellow Patrick Keeling and Fellow Claudio Slamovits (University of British Columbia) describe a new protein in a marine microbial predator that likely allows it to harvest energy from sunlight. The protein, called proteorhodopsin, was acquired from a bacterium by lateral gene transfer. The discovery could be used to build artificial photosynthetic systems, such as those that convert solar energy to electrical energy.

Credit: NASA

An E. huxleyi bloom off of the coast of northern Norway in the Barents sea

2011

Chemical that kills aging algae discovered

CIFAR Associate Rebecca Case (University of Alberta) and colleagues discover a chemical used by a type of marine bacteria to kill aging algae. The population of phaeobacter gallaeciensis grows and shrinks along with its host algae, Emiliana huxleyi. E. huxleyi cycles through massive blooms that can be visible from space and it plays an important role in the global carbon cycle. The researchers show that P. gallaeciensis detects an acid released by the algae as it ages and begins to secrete a chemical, dubbed roseobacticide, that turns the bacterium into a pathogen of its host. The compounds have been patented and used to benefit industry as well as the U.S. Navy’s biofouling program, as it can help prevent algae from growing on ships, attracting barnacles and other marine life that cause damage.

Credit: Mark J. Dayel / Wikimedia Commons

Colonies of the choanoflagellate Salpingoeca rosetta can divide into flower-shaped organisms when triggered by a bacterium

2012

Bacterium triggers plankton’s transformation

Senior Fellow Nicole King’s (University of California, Berkeley) team discovers that a bacterium can trigger a type of plankton, choanoflagellates, to divide into multicellular, flower-shaped organisms. A lipid molecule within the bacterium algoriphagus machipongonensis triggers the split. The same molecule is related to others that control cell division in plants, fungi and animals. Choanoflagellates are animals’ closest living relatives, therefore they provide insight into the emergence of multicellular life.

Credit: David Hill, University of Melbourne, and Geoff McFadden

Two ocean-dwelling species of algae, Guillardia theta (left), and Bigelowiella natans (right)

2012

Symbiosis drives alga’s evolution

Led by Senior Fellow John Archibald (Dalhousie University), researchers from 27 labs in 10 countries, including six other CIFAR researchers, sequence and decipher the genomes of two ocean-dwelling species of algae, the cyptomonad Guillardia and the chlorarachniophyte Bigelowiella. The team shows that the genomes of these unicellular creatures, considered to have the most complex cells known, are really mosaics of the different organisms they have engulfed over their evolutionary histories, including those that had given them their photosynthetic powers. Scientists continue to study the genomes, not only for the insights they provide on the evolution of life and the biogeochemistry of our planet, but also for commercial purposes such as the development of algae biofuels.

Credit: PLOS Biology

A schematic of the major lineages in the eukaryotic tree of life, showing the relationships between lineages for which genomic resources are currently available and those that have been targeted by the MMETSP

2014

New genetic data collection

An international collaboration called the Marine Microbial Eukaryotic Transcriptome Sequencing Project (MMETSP) builds a new collection of RNA molecules for more than 650 microbial life forms, enlightening our understanding of ecological processes in the ocean. Funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the project involves CIFAR Senior Fellow and Program Director Patrick Keeling (University of British Columbia) and CIFAR Senior Fellows Alexandra Worden (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), John Archibald, Alastair Simpson (both Dalhousie University) and Brian Leander (University of British Columbia), CIFAR Fellow Claudio Slamovits (Dalhousie University), and CIFAR Advisor Virginia Armbrust (University of Washington). MMETSP sequences the transcriptome of hundreds of species of eukaryotes and posts the data to the Community Cyberinfrastructure for Advanced Microbial Ecology Research and Analysis (CAMERA) database for open access.

Credit: Shannon Donovan / University of Rhode Island

The brown alga Ectocarpus siliculosus, one of several diverse types of algae studied

2014

Marine algae can sense the rainbow

CIFAR Senior Fellow Alexandra Worden (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) and collaborators show that while photoreceptors in land plants detect only the red and far-red light common in air, those in marine algae detect light across the visible spectrum. Together with CIFAR Fellow Adrián Reyes-Prieto (University of New Brunswick), Worden sequences the transcriptomes of 20 diverse marine algae and discovers the genes coding for photoreceptors detecting a rainbow of colours including blue, green, orange and red. Light conditions are more variable in the ocean, where red light is quickly absorbed by water, and only blue-green light reaches deeper into the water column.  Consequently, these organisms likely evolved to use varying wavelengths of light as cues to help them respond to changing environments, including daily light variations (e.g. dawn, dusk.)  As the planet warms, water column structure is expected to change, and thus the light conditions these algae are exposed to will also. An ability to adjust to these changes could be important for their survival.

Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The diagram shows a symbiosis rabbit hole as example of the causes and consequences of symbiotic co-evolution. Symbiosis can help species survive but it can also lead to irreversible co-dependence

2014

Sackler Colloquium: Symbioses Becoming Permanent

CIFAR Senior Fellow and Program Director Patrick Keeling (University of British Columbia), CIFAR Fellow John McCutcheon (University of Montana) and CIFAR Advisor W. Ford Doolittle (Dalhousie University) curate an Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Entitled Symbioses becoming permanent:  The origins and evolutionary trajectories of organelles, the meeting brings together world leaders in two research fields:  the biology of symbiotic interactions and the origins of organelles, the specialized compartments found within complex cells.  The invited presenters, including seven CIFAR fellows and advisors, repeatedly uncover characteristics that unify endosymbionts and organelles, including some fundamental genetic processes.

Credit: Hoppenrath and Leander

Light micrograph showing the eye-like structure in warnowiid dinoflagellates

2015

Convergent evolution of an “eye”

A team of collaborators, including CIFAR Senior Fellows Brian Leander, Patrick Keeling and Curtis Suttle (all University of British Columbia) and lead author and Ph.D. student, Greg Gavelis, show that the eye-like structure of a single-celled marine plankton called warnowiids contains many of the components of a complex eye. They sequence the genomes of warnowiids, which are predatory microbes, and analyze how their eyes are built using powerful new methods in electron microscopy that offer unprecedented detail about uncultivated organisms. They find a collection of sub-cellular organelles that look very much like the lens, cornea, iris and retina of multicellular eyes that can detect objects, such as those humans and other larger animals have. The organelles consist of mitochondria and a network of interconnected plastids, which photosynthetic plants use to harvest energy from light. Scientists are still investigating exactly how warnowiids use the eye-like structure, but hypotheses suggest they may help these predators detect the position of their prey in the plankton, consisting of different kinds of microbes, including other dinoflagellates like itself.

Credit: Hoppenrath and Leander

Light micrograph showing the eye-like structure in warnowiid dinoflagellates

2015

Convergent evolution of an “eye”

A team of collaborators, including CIFAR Senior Fellows Brian Leander, Patrick Keeling and Curtis Suttle (all University of British Columbia) and lead author and Ph.D. student, Greg Gavelis, show that the eye-like structure of a single-celled marine plankton called warnowiids contains many of the components of a complex eye. They sequence the genomes of warnowiids, which are predatory microbes, and analyze how their eyes are built using powerful new methods in electron microscopy that offer unprecedented detail about uncultivated organisms. They find a collection of sub-cellular organelles that look very much like the lens, cornea, iris and retina of multicellular eyes that can detect objects, such as those humans and other larger animals have. The organelles consist of mitochondria and a network of interconnected plastids, which photosynthetic plants use to harvest energy from light. Scientists are still investigating exactly how warnowiids use the eye-like structure, but hypotheses suggest they may help these predators detect the position of their prey in the plankton, consisting of different kinds of microbes, including other dinoflagellates like itself.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Marine diatoms, a group of phytoplankton

2015

Microbes shape the health of oceans

Three CIFAR researchers present their findings on the role of microbes in ocean ecosystems at the 2015 AAAS symposium. CIFAR Senior Fellow Patrick Keeling (University of British Columbia) presents his research on how free living algae can evolve into parasites. CIFAR Advisor E. Virginia Armbrust (University of Washington) illuminates scientific knowledge on diatoms, which are an abundant group of single-celled algae that perform about one-fifth of the photosynthesis on Earth each year. CIFAR Senior Fellow Alexandra Z. Worden (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) explore how marine algae respond to their environments. She will discuss scientific innovations that led to discoveries about how vitamins control algal blooms and how a group of algae related to land plants, prasinophytes, might contain clues about the evolution of plants. The challenges of advancing marine microbial research are also the subject of a review article published the same day in Science, co-authored by Worden, Keeling and several colleagues. The article proposes a re-wiring of our models of global carbon cycling making a much more complex picture than normally portrayed in schematics of nutrient flow in the world’s oceans.

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