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Oklahoma State University

OSU scientist contributes to alga breakthrough

Fri, March 08, 2013

Oklahoma State University scientist Gerald Schoenknecht has coordinated the genome analysis of a species of red alga that exists, and even thrives, in extreme conditions.

The project began in 2003 and Schoenknecht is one of 18 authors from the U.S. and Germany who developed a manuscript detailing the unique findings of the Galdieria sulphuraria genome. Their work has been accepted by Science magazine, which has a weekly readership of more than 2 million.

“This project has been a poster child for international collaboration,” the native of Osnabruck, Germany, said.

Galdieria sulphuraria lives in volcanic areas that contain almost no other life forms. The alga is unique in that it can withstand high temperatures, high acidity and high concentrations of salt and toxic metals.

“It could be cultivated in battery acid,” the associate professor of botany said about the alga.

Schoenknecht was primarily responsible for analyzing the genome sequence of Galdieria sulphuraria. Genome sequencing is the process of decoding and interpreting an organism’s DNA. By doing this, the functions and interactions of the different proteins are revealed.

“I explain it as having a phone book and trying to figure out what is going on in that town,” Schoenknecht said.

While analyzing the alga’s genome sequence, Schoenknecht and the other researchers found the genes that allowed the alga to tolerate extreme environments were acquired from bacteria through horizontal gene transfer. Acquiring a gene from another, entirely different organism is a process known as horizontal gene transfer.

“This really came as a surprise, as most textbooks will say that eukaryotes do not do this,” Schoenknecht said.

A eukaryote is an organism whose cells contain a nucleus, such as the Galdieria sulphuraria.

Schoenknecht believes the discovery prompted Science’s interest in publishing the manuscript.

“It gives fundamental new insights into evolution,” Schoenknecht said. “Before this, there was not much of an indication that eukaryotes acquire genes from bacteria.”

In the future, genetic engineering may allow other algae to make use of the proteins that provide stress tolerance toGaldieria sulphuraria. This development may be especially relevant in the field of biofuel production, as oil-producing algae do not yet contain the ability to withstand the extreme conditions that Galdieria does.