Algae Tolerant of Extreme Environments Offer Wal-Mart of Genomic Material

Most organisms would die in the volcanic sulfur pools of Yellowstone and Mount Etna. Robust simple algae call these extreme environments home, and their secrets to survival could advance human medicine and bioremediation. Dr. Mike Garavito, Michigan State University (MSU) 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 March 8, 2013 issue of Science, shows that the algae’s ability to adapt to a hot and extremely acidic environment ¬lies in part in their membrane proteins. “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 Dr. Garavito. “This has applications in human medicine because virtually all of the important pathways that contribute to disease treatment involve membrane proteins.” 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 mold, are fragile. The hardy algae give researchers extra time to manipulate and examine their membrane proteins. Dr. Garavito was part of a team of researchers led by Dr. Andreas Weber, former MSU researcher now at Heinrich-Heine-Universitat Dusseldorf (Germany). While at MSU, Dr. Weber led a team in first sequencing the algae, one of the first major genome sequencing projects at MSU. “Dr. 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 Dr.
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