Red algae: The ‘Wal-Mart of genomes’

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Most organisms would die in the volcanic sulfur pools of Yellowstone and Mount Etna. Robust simple algae call it home.

The secrets to their survival could lead to advancements in human medicine and contamination clean-up, scientists say.

A research team has shown 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 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,” says Michael Garavito, Michigan State University professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

“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 algae give researchers extra time to manipulate and examine their membrane proteins.

Researcher Andreas Weber, Heinrich-Heine-Universitat Dusseldorf, led the study.

“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,” says Dave Dewitt, associate dean of research at Michigan State University’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 genome’s bioremediation aisle. In this capacity, scientists are quite interested in how the organisms manage toxic chemicals and heavy-metal contamination. 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 says. “This research could lead to enzymes that are needed to clean up mine and heavy-metal contamination.”

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 National Science Foundation funded the research.

Source: Michigan State University