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Media Release: Genomics project seeks to gain critical understanding of how aquatic species thrive together and provide insight into the evolution of life on Earth

Posted by Communications and Marketing on September 23, 2020 in News

Sept. 23, 2020 (Halifax, NS) Scientists from around the world are taking on an ambitious project to sequence the genetic codes of 1,000 aquatic species – representing 500 symbiotic partnerships – in a bid to understand how these organisms have changed to depend on each other for survival.

The Aquatic Symbiosis Project, a new collaboration between the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, will help researchers answer important questions about the ecology and evolution of symbiosis – where two different species live in very close association – in marine and freshwater ecosystems at a time when biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate.

Dr. John Archibald, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dalhousie University, has been selected to lead one of four international teams of collaborators. His multi-year project will focus on endosymbiosis, which involves one type of cell residing within another. Without endosymbiosis, we would not have algae, plants and trees or the oxygen they produce.

“Symbiosis is a massively important part of life on Earth, past and present. But when organisms live in close association, it can be difficult if not impossible to study them,” says Dr. Archibald.

“With the latest DNA analysis technologies, such as those used by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, we will be able to sequence the genomes of both symbiotic partners at the same time and then use computers to infer each of their genomes from the resulting data.”

Symbiosis covers a spectrum of relationships, from temporary to lifelong, and from mutually beneficial to exploitative. For example, relationships between corals and algae are mutually beneficial, with the algae receiving a home and the coral access to nutrients through photosynthesis. These coral collaborations are the foundations of hyper-diverse reef systems worldwide.

Little is known about how symbiotic partners adapt to one another over time, how resilient these partnerships are and how they respond to disruption. The Aquatic Symbiosis Genomics project will bring all the tools of leading-edge genomics to bear on these questions and benefit scientists working to understand and conserve ocean and freshwater biodiversity.

The project will create gold-standard genome sequences for around 1,000 marine and freshwater species that form around 500 symbiotic partnerships. When done, the genomes will be publicly available via an online data platform run by EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute.

Access to genomic information will be used to address some of the most urgent conservation challenges in our oceans, rivers and lakes. This includes such things as coral bleaching, where higher ocean temperatures lead to corals losing their symbiotic algal partner and becoming sick or dying. A greater understanding of the impact of this threat may allow researchers to develop strategies that could help reefs survive.

“Symbiosis is a key part of the way the world works, and it has always fascinated me that organisms that might otherwise be predator and prey have evolved to co-operate to survive,” says Mark Blaxter of the Tree of Life programme at the Sanger Institute and lead investigator of the Aquatic Symbiosis Genomics Project, which is being funded by Wellcome Sanger and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Media Contacts:
Alison Auld
Senior Research Reporter
Dalhousie University

Matthew Midgley
Press Office
Wellcome Sanger Institute
Cambridge, CB10 1SA
Phone: 01223 494856


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