UNF researcher receives NSF grant to study algal mats on the bottom of Lake Huron
Dr. Dale Casamatta, University of North Florida biology professor, has been awarded an National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to continue his research on an interesting set of Lake Huron algal mats, with a hope to uncover some of the genetic cues for bacterial communication in nature and as a way of understanding how microbial mats potentially gave rise to life on Earth.
These algal mats are a complex consortium mainly consisting of cyanobacteria, with bacteria and archaea as symbiotes. The cyanobacteria are a collection of oxygen-producing bacteria that are probably the oldest photosynthetic organisms on Earth. They are also responsible for causing a lot of environmental problems and are the chief components of harmful freshwater algal blooms. Human alterations to the environment are leading to increased frequency and severity of such blooms, some of which locally in Jacksonville, Fla. have putatively even led to dolphin mortalities. Cyanobacteria exist everywhere on Earth from marine habitats to deserts, from freshwaters to growing on the sides of buildings and discoloring roofs in Florida, so they are some of the most ubiquitous organisms known.
Casamatta will work with his research team to study modern-day microbial mats living on the bottom of sinkholes underneath Lake Huron which experience an oxygen-poor, sulfur-rich environment resembling life on early Earth. Studying these mats can help tell the story of the origins of life on Earth, better understand ecosystem processes, and discover new microorganisms.
The Diel Vertical Migration in the Mat World project will aim to unravel some of the process of microbial movement and ecology through testing responses to changing conditions. Using new technologies to examine the meta-genomics and -transcriptomics (exploring both the native and expressed genetic material), the researchers hope to be able to elucidate and articulate the genes involved in structuring microbial communities. The research team will then compare their work with other globally distributed cyanobacterial mat systems, such as those from terrestrial springs and ice-covered Antarctic lakes. The diverse and versatile mats may also serve as a useful working model for robotic exploration of similar life in extraterrestrial waters.
The project will fuel active collaboration between UNF, Grand Valley State University and a National Marine Sanctuary as well as generate compelling research projects for students.