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University of Iowa News Release

June 19, 2006

UI Biologist Wins $1.1 Million NIH Grant To Study Red Tide

What triggers the onset of "red tide" -- the ecologically and financially costly biological phenomenon that periodically kills millions of fish and shellfish along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts?

A University of Iowa biologist and faculty member of the Roy J. Carver Center for Comparative Genomics hopes to answer that question using a $1,101,821, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study red tide. Debashish Bhattacharya, principal investigator, associate professor of biological sciences in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of the UI Interdisciplinary Program in Genetics, plans to use a genomic approach to solve the mystery.

"The idea is to develop an understanding of the genome and gene expression of a marine plankton called Alexandrium tamarense during its life cycle so that we can identify candidate genes involved in the formation of harmful algal blooms and saxitoxon production," he says. "Ultimately the gene expression information will be used to develop on-board monitoring tools during ocean cruises in the North Atlantic and elsewhere to predict the onset of red tides."

Bhattacharya, who is an adjunct scientist at Woods Hole and will spend his summers in Cape Cod to lead and coordinate the research, says that very little is known about the factors that influence the formation of red tide, its recent spread to new areas, and the genes involved in its production of toxins. What is known is that Alexandrium causes harmful algal blooms and paralytic shellfish poisoning by producing saxitoxins.

He notes that marine plankton, referred to as dinoflagellates, are one of the most economically important single-celled organisms because the toxic red tides they cause result in massive fish and shellfish destruction. "Our work is to lay the foundation for understanding the basic biology of these species," says Bhattacharya, who previously received a $790,000 NSF and U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to generate a genomic database for Alexandrium.

"Our specific aims are to use a highly efficient gene discovery strategy to generate a comprehensive expressed sequence tag for Alexandrium. Analysis of the different sequences in the Alexandrium unigene set will also reveal key aspects of dinoflagellate nuclear gene origin and genome evolution," he says.

The collaborative project, funded through the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, includes co-principal investigators Marcelo Bento Soares of Northwestern University's Children's Memorial Research Center, Chicago, Ill., and Donald Anderson of The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass. Soares' lab is responsible for the critical normalized and subtracted expressed sequence tag library production and sequencing, while Anderson is responsible for the culturing of Alexandrium and providing key insights into its ecology, physiology and patterns of gene expression.

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