Santa Cruz Good Times

Saturday
Feb 06th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Mini Microbes Make A Big Splash

news microbesLocal scientist earns prestigious ocean research award to continue microbe research

In a lab bursting with state-of-the art equipment and analytical instruments, Alexandra Worden pores over the latest genetic data from microbes freshly scooped out of sunny ocean waters. Around her, a team of UC Santa Cruz graduate students, visiting scientists, and interns are hard at work delving into the mysteries of these tiny organisms.

Worden is an internationally recognized scientist whose bustling research lab at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) is a mecca for studying ocean microbes—invisibly small creatures essential to ocean ecosystems and the planet's health.

Worden, who lives with her two young daughters and husband in Capitola, came to MBARI, a facility devoted to ocean research, in 2007.

Her pioneering work in marine environmental ecology recently earned her a prestigious Investigator Award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The foundation's Genny Biggs says the award goes to scientists with "creativity, innovation, and potential to make major, new breakthroughs."

Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, and his wife Betty created the Palo Alto-based foundation in 2000 so that leading scientists could take research risks that other funders are reluctant to support.

"We are big believers in the inherent value of science and basic research, and the sense of awe that discovery inspires," says Biggs. "We try to bring people together, create synergies, and transform—or even create—entire fields of science."

Worden is one of 16 awardees announced last December, after an extensive review process of more than 180 applicants worldwide. Each will receive $200,000 to $500,000 a year for the next five years.

The beauty of this award, Worden explains, is that "it funds people, not projects. So instead of laying out a safe, prescribed research plan, I have a lot more freedom to do things that are creative and highly experimental."

That approach can allow for huge progress, she says. She points to important discoveries stemming from high-risk research in the area of human health over the last several decades. "It's really important that we take similar risks in environmental research," she says.

Worden didn't always plan on studying microscopic cells, however. She began her academic career as a history major at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, but knew she wanted to eventually earn a doctorate exploring the interface of environment and society. To prepare for that, she took science courses at nearby MIT, completing a BA in history with a concentration in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. Worden obtained a doctorate in ecology from the University of Georgia, and did postdoctoral research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

High on her research list are prasinophytes: single-celled marine algae about the size of bacteria. They contain chlorophyll, which makes them part of the ocean's microbial greenery that keeps us, and every oxygen-breathing life form, alive. With the aid of sunlight, they take in carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. Very little is known about prasinophyte ecology and evolution, but Worden is remedying that.

"It's hard to imagine," she says, "but these ocean algae are modern representatives of cells that gave rise to all the green life on land. Until we sequenced their DNA and analyzed their genomes, we didn’t realize how much they are akin to land plants."

Because of that similarity, Worden says that prasinophytes could become a new model for studying plants as large as redwoods. "They can help us understand aspects of land plant development," she says, "like how sunlight triggers the change from seed to photosynthetic seedling. That's much easier to study in a single cell than a large plant."

Although the majority of her work is done in the lab, Worden and her crew can also be found riding the seas on a research ship. "You need to be in the field to discover the next critter rather than just focus on the ones you can grow in the lab," she says. "But you also need lab work to test hypotheses in a controlled way, and then move right back to the field and see if they hold up."

And even though she works hard on board, Worden says it's wonderfully freeing to be connecting with the sea. "On the ocean, surrounded by its vastness, all the things that weigh you down on land seem inconsequential," she says. "To me, that's comforting."

However, looking out at the water, Worden is also reminded of environmental threats facing the oceans today. She worries about how the ocean's microbial soup will tolerate human activities.

"As we dump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs it and becomes more acidic," she explains. "When that happens, it's harder for organisms to maintain homeostasis. Although they might survive, they may be doing so in a compromised state, much like an immunocompromised person may find health problems more damaging than would a healthy individual."

She hopes that her research can increase understanding about marine algae, and thereby raise awareness about why it's important they remain healthy. "We rely on these organisms to make oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, and we have no idea if they can continue to provide that ecosystem service as ocean conditions change," she says. 

Comments (2)Add Comment
Environmentalist
written by Bill Smallman, February 17, 2013
I'd like to express desire for Dr. Worden to study the impact of microbes created from the pollution sewage from our coastal cities. This will provide support for the use of recycled water, eliminating pollution and conservation. The proposed desalination plant would use this pollution as a diluter for the brine, when perhaps it should be recycled for irrigation use. At this time this is a very pressing need for someone of this caliber to show the effect of our increased human population has on the planet, and how decisions on a local level can make a huge difference.
Software engineer
written by Tommy O, February 13, 2013
Great, informative article! Most of us are familiar with large animals - dolphins, whales, and sharks. Interesting how the tiniest organisms are among the most important.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

On the Run

Is there hope for California’s salmon?

 

Chinese New Year of the Red Fire Monkey

Monday, Feb. 8, is Aquarius new moon (19 degrees) and Chinese New Year of the Red Fire Monkey (an imaginative, intelligent and vigilant creature). Monkey is bright, quick, lively, quite naughty, clever, inquiring, sensible, and reliable. Monkey loves to help others. Often they are teachers, writers and linguists. They are very talented, like renaissance people. Leonardo Da Vinci was born in the year of Monkey. Monkey contains metal (relation to gold) and water (wisdom, danger). 2016 will be a year of finances. For a return on one’s money, invest in monkey’s ideas. Metal is related to wind (change). Therefore events in 2016 will change very quickly. We must ponder with care before making financial, business and relationship changes. Fortune’s path may not be smooth in 2016. Finances and business as usual will be challenged. Although we develop practical goals, the outcomes are different than hoped for. We must be cautious with investments and business partnership. It is most important to cultivate a balanced and harmonious daily life, seeking ways to release tension, pressure and stress to improve health and calmness. Monkey is lively, flexible, quick-witted, and versatile. Their gentle, honest, enchanting yet resourceful nature results often in everlasting love. Monkeys are freedom loving. Without freedom, Monkey becomes dull, sad and very unhappy. During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC), the Chinese official title of Marquis (noble person) was pronounced ‘Hou,’ the same as the pronunciation of ‘monkey’ in Chinese. Monkey was thereby bestowed with auspicious (favorable, fortunate) meaning. Monkey years are: 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016.  

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of February 5

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Wine and Chocolate

West Cliff Wines gets its game on, plus a brand new chocolate cafe on Center Street

 

How would you stop people from littering?

Teach them from the time that they’re small that it’s not an appropriate behavior. Juliet Jones, Santa Cruz, Claims Adjuster

 

Dancing Creek Winery

New Zinfandel Port is a ruby beauty

 

Venus Spirits

Changing law could mean new opportunity for local spirits