Marine microalgae and evolutionary adaptation to environmental changes

The article “Evolutionary genomics of the cold-adapted diatom Fragilariopsis cylindrus” (Nature 541 [7638]: 26 January 2017), was recently named a Fast-Breaking Paper for Biology & Biochemistry in Essential Science Indicators from Clarivate Analytics and featured on our Science Research Connect blog here. The paper now has 22 citations in the Web of Science Core Collection.


In the interview below, lead author Thomas Mock talks about this paper and how genome sequencing and evolutionary biology can work together to discover new life forms and develop new resources.

Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

I think our paper is highly cited because there is significant interest in how important primary producers of polar marine ecosystems have evolved and potentially will respond to global warming. As our paper is the first at least for the marine system to show that positive selection drives allelic differentiation in diploid organisms and therefore enables alleles to neofunctionalize, it provides a novel mechanism underpinning adaptive evolution in microalgae. Preliminary data from new genome projects with microalgae give evidence that allelic differentiation seems to be much more common and therefore is not unique to organisms in polar ecosystems.

Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

Our paper describes the first genome sequence from a psychrophilic polar eukaryote (diatom), and it describes for the first time that divergent alleles in marine eukaryotic organisms may be involved in adaptation to environmental fluctuations.

Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman’s terms?

The redundancy of genetic information in genomes, which refers to homologous chromosomes, seems to be essential in some organisms for the survival and evolution in variable environments. This knowledge obtained from a key microalgal species that lives in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica will impact how we study organisms, analyse their genomes and assess their potential to cope with environmental change.

How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you’ve encountered along the way?

To answer this question, I’d like to refer to a blog I wrote. You can find it here.

Where do you see your research leading in the future?

A challenging issue is to combine sequence data with phenotypes of organisms, which, however, is key to understand their ecology and evolution. To bridge that gap, we will try to bring together genome editing technology (e.g., CRISPR/Cas) and evolutionary studies with marine microalgae. With the application of CRISPR/Cas in microalgae, for instance, we are able to identify mutations that underpin important phenotypes. This information will improve our understanding of sequence variations and what they mean for interactions between organisms and their environment.

Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

The oceans cover approximately 71% of the surface of our planet, yet it is still the most unknown and underexplored ecosystem on Earth especially when considering the deep sea and polar oceans. Recent ocean sequencing surveys documented unprecedented genetic diversity especially for marine microbes. This sequence information provides significant opportunities to discover new life forms especially when we become able to understand their evolution and adaptation. This genetic resource can be harnessed in a sustainable way to benefit mankind. For instance, microalgae can be used and engineered to produce biofuel and essential nutraceuticals. Unique adaptations of other marine microbes such as bacteria and fungi can be used to obtain antibiotics and anticancer drugs.



Professor Thomas Mock
Marine Microbiologist
School of Environmental Sciences
University of East Anglia
Norwich Research Park

United Kingdom