BonheyoSEQUIM, Wash. – Washington State University is part of an $8 million effort to accelerate development of experimental model systems in marine microbial ecology.

George Bonheyo, a research professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, is part of an international team of more than 100 scientists at 33 institutions participating in the two-year grant, supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative.

The researchers will be generating genetic tools to disrupt microbial gene activity to understand how organisms function in marine ecosystems and to provide the capability to ask scientific questions in ways not currently possible.

“Scientists who want to study carbon and nutrient cycling need tools to turn genes on or off in key species during laboratory studies,’’ said Bonheyo, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Wash., who holds a joint appointment with WSU. “However, systems for genetic manipulation have not been worked out for most microscopic organisms, particularly in the marine environment.’’

Model systems, such as the mammalian gut bacterium E. coli for microbiology and the fruit fly for biomedicine, have been invaluable for deciphering complex biology. For example, by studying fruit flies, scientists gain insight into the inheritance of human traits such as eye color.

But in marine microbial ecology, there are very few model systems and associated tools that enable scientists to explore the physiology, biochemistry and ecology of marine microbes, which are key drivers of the ocean’s elemental cycles, influence greenhouse gas levels and support marine food webs.

Researchers have access to powerful tools in biology to help them understand the ocean, such as microscopy and DNA sequencing, but are lacking essential tools in genetics to make robust experimental model systems. Without these tools, scientists are less able to link specific genes to cell behavior or determine how microbes interact within their environment and with one another – critical information for understanding how ocean ecosystems function.

The WSU and PNNL research team will be developing genetic tools that scientists can use to study marine microeukaryotes, or microscopic organisms that live in the ocean such as diatoms, dinoflagellates, coccolithophores and fungi.

Some of these, such as diatoms, are photosynthetic and have important roles at the bottom of the food chain. Fungi, meanwhile, play a key role in degrading biomass, said Bonheyo.

“All of these organisms are critical to nutrient and carbon cycling in the oceans and coasts,’’ he said. “Upsetting this balance has potentially major implications for ocean acidification, food webs and climate change.’’

But, with hard outer shells and a robust immune system that attacks foreign DNA, important organisms like diatoms can be difficult for scientists to work with. Bonheyo’s research laboratory has expertise in developing genetic toolkits that address these challenges. They do work in introducing DNA into cells, selecting or screening for cells that have been altered and controlling when and to what extent genes are turned on.

The project will also allow for close collaboration between WSU researchers and the U.S. Department of Energy’s PNNL.

“Such a regional partnership strengthens the science community, creates potential for collaboration, leads to opportunities for economic development and from PNNL’s perspective creates the opportunity to recruit talent from universities,’’ said Bonheyo.

“This grant, as developed by Dr. Bonheyo, illustrates one of the benefits of the close relationship that we have developed between the Voiland School and PNNL,’’ said Jim Petersen, Voiland School director. “This grant will leverage PNNL facilities and expertise to enable both PNNL and WSU to make significant advances in biofilm engineering for health.’’

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area.

“An important aspect of our grant making in marine science is to identify opportunities to overcome bottlenecks that are preventing scientific progress, which often requires taking a risk,” said Jon Kaye, program director of the Marine Microbiology Initiative at the foundation. “We are also working with this group of scientists to broadly share information about their developing genetic techniques – both what is working and what remains unsolved – through online forums such as protocols.io, an open-access repository of science methods.”