In October 2020, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Wellcome Sanger Institute initiated a large-scale international Aquatic Symbiosis Genomics project, which includes funding four research “hubs” to organize 50 symbiotic species each for whole genome sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hixton England.
NSU HCAS faculty member Jose V. Lopez, Ph.D. will lead the photosymbiotic hub in collaboration with local and international researchers. This hub will focus on studying and sequencing “photosymbiotic” organisms. These partnerships include aquatic animal hosts such as corals, sea slugs or giant clams which depend on microbial symbiotic partners that photosynthesize (the capture of sunlight energy to produce sugars). Dr. Lopez states “indeed most plants and animals harbor microbial symbionts, including humans and bovids, so symbiosis is the rule in nature not the exception. Photosynthesis and symbiosis may represent two of the most fundamental processes that define life on this planet.”
Many aquatic photosymbionts may totally depend on the microbe for existence. For example, reef building corals cannot build their own calcium carbonate skeletons without their dinoflagellate algal symbionts. Corals will eventually perish after bleaching (loss of their photosynthetic algae) for prolonged periods of time. Saccoglossan sea slugs eat photosynthetic algae, but do not fully digest them. The “leftover” chloroplasts become temporarily incorporated into the animal tissue making them essentially solar powered.
Dr. Lopez states that “it is quite an honor and pleasure to work with more talented invertebrate biologists. The hub started out with just 10 core researchers, but we will likely expand to 3-4x that number as the community grows. This community development was one of the main goals of the Moore Foundation and the Sanger Institute. Indeed, it is possible that we were tapped for one of these pilot awards because of our affiliation with the Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance, which is already a full fledged community of scientists.”