DURHAM, N.H. A grant to the University of New Hampshire and the University of California, Davis, will help biologists identify an abundant yet largely unknown category of organisms, leading to better understanding of the vital environmental functions they play.
The National Science Foundation awarded the two universities $500,000 to develop a Research Coordination Network on eukaryotic biodiversity. The work will apply new genome sequencing technology to study and classify microscopic eukaryote species like nematodes, fungi, and single-celled animals.
These small yet complex organisms are invisible to the eye but abundant in marine and terrestrial environments from sandy beaches to garden plots. "If you're making a sandcastle, there are thousands and thousands of these creatures in a handful of sand. They provide key ecosystem services," says co-principal investigator W. Kelley Thomas, Hubbard Professor in Genomics and director of UNH's Hubbard Center for Genome Studies. They process waste, cycle nutrients, and even "eat" spilled oil, he says.
"I call them the 'dark matter' of biology," says Holly Bik, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis and co-principal investigator on the project. "They are in every single environment, but no one looks at them." Bik worked with Thomas as a postdoctoral researcher at UNH.
The traditional taxonomic approach to biodiversity involves looking at an organism and describing the features legs, wings, teeth, leaves that make it similar to or distinct from other organisms. Because taxonomy is far easier and more efficient to apply to cats and cows and pine trees than to microscopic organisms like nematodes, knowledge of the Earth's biodiversity shows a distinct bias toward larger species.
Now, new high-throughput DNA sequencing technology makes it possible to identify and classify these organisms much more quickly and comprehensively, describing each species with a short "barcode" of s
|Contact: Beth Potier|
University of New Hampshire