Understanding how the changing global environment might affect these important ecosystem players is like trying to understand the solar system when all you can discern are the brightest objects in the sky.
A graphical view of tens of millions of bases of DNA extracted from a marine microbial community found in Puget Sound reveals the entangled genomes of bacteria, archaea and viruses. University of Washington scientists extracted two million of these to map the genome of one particular marine microorganism that had defied investigation. Credit: V Iverson/U of Washington
The researchers determined the genome of a member of the marine group II Euryarchaeota, something that has defied investigators since those microorganisms were first detected about a decade ago. They are found widely across the world's oceans so – although not always abundant – biologists assume they have some important function, said Virginia Armbrust, UW professor of oceanography and corresponding author on the Science paper. The resulting genome offers hints that Euryarchaeota might serve as a kind of cleanup crew after diatoms, another ocean microorganism, bloom and die.
"Ocean microorganisms are regulators of large biogeochemical cycles so we need to understand the different members of those communities," Armbrust said. "As we change coastal communities – for better or for worse – we need to understand the players that are there."The genome also clarified the origin of a gene that allows marine group II Euryarchaeota, as well as many marine bacteria, to harvest energy directly from sunlight, with no photosynthesis involved.
But previous techniques allowed scientists to reconstruct an organism's genome only if the organism made up a third or more of a sample. The UW team showed how to construct the genome of marine group II Euryarchaeota even though it comprised only 7 percent of the cells found in 100 liters of water from Puget Sound near Seattle.
The sample was analyzed using equipment purchased with funding to Armbrust from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which also paid for Iverson's work. The project was conducted in labs run by Armbrust and co-author Robert Morris, a UW assistant professor of oceanography. Other co-authors are Christian Frazar, Chris Berthiaume and Rhonda Morales, all with the UW."Now you can afford to get things that are a much smaller fraction of your overall sample," Iverson said. "That's what's really new – to assemble something with a genome that is not closely related to anything else that is known, so there are no templates or references to work from, and to discern organisms making up less than10 percent of a sample from a complex community."
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