Most organisms would die in the volcanic sulphur pools of
Yellowstone and Mount Etna. Robust simple algae call it home, and their secrets
to survival could advance human medicine and bioremediation.
Mike Garavito, Michigan State University professor of biochemistry
and molecular biology was part of a research team that revealed how primitive
red algae use horizontal gene transfer, in essence stealing useful genes from
other organisms to evolve and thrive in harsh environments.
Their study, published in the current issue of Science, shows that the algae’s ability
to adapt to a hot and extremely acidic environment ¬lies in part in their
“The algae’s membrane proteins are biologically quite
interesting because they’re receptors and transporters, the same classes of
proteins that play key roles in energy metabolism and human immune response,”
said Garavito. “This has applications in human medicine because virtually all
of the important pathways that contribute to disease treatment involve membrane
How the research was
What makes the algae’s membrane proteins attractive as a
model for humans is their robustness. Other traditional candidates, such as
yeast, insect cell cultures and slime mould, are fragile. The algae give
researchers extra time to manipulate and examine their membrane proteins.
Garavito was part of a team of researchers led by Andreas
Weber, former MSU researcher now at Heinrich-Heine-Universitat Dusseldorf
(Germany). While at MSU, Weber led a team in first sequencing the algae, one of
the first major genome sequencing projects at MSU.
“Weber knew that this would be a good organism from which to
harvest a wide variety of genes that could be potential models for those
involved in human health and disease,” said Dave Dewitt, associate dean of research
at MSU’s College of Natural Science. “From a biotechnology standpoint, this
organism is the Wal-Mart of genomes; if it doesn’t have what you’re looking
for, you probably don’t need it.”
Furthering the superstore metaphor, the research team also
is spending time in the Wal-Mart genome’s bioremediation aisle. In this
capacity, scientists are quite interested in how the organisms manage toxic
chemicals and heavy metal contamination. That’s because these algae are found
not only near geysers, but they also populate polluted slag pools and mines.
“This organism knows how to deal with leaching loads of
heavy metals in a noxious environment,” Garavito said. “This research could
lead to enzymes that are needed to clean up mine and heavy-metal
MSU scientists who contributed to this paper include: Kevin
Carr, information technologist, and Curtis Wilkerson, plant biologist. The team
also included researchers from Oklahoma State University, Ernst Moritz Arndt
Universitat Greifswald, University of Michigan, University of
California-Berkeley, University of Freiburg, Universite de Lille, CyanoBiofuels
GmbH, Novocymes Inc., Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of
California-San Diego and Philipps-University Marburg.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.