The Marine Genome Project

By Nabila Abu Ghanem

The Oceanus Research Vessel

The Oceanus Research Vessel

A forum was recently held to present the collaborations between AUC and The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). One such collaboration involves AUC’s Department of Biology which is undertaking an exciting project with the ambitious title The Marine Genome Project. On Sunday, the 22nd of February, I interviewed Dr Rania Siam, one of the faculty members in the Biology Department and a key member of the research team, to understand just what the Marine Genome Project is all about.

According to Dr Siam, the Marine Genome Project is “an environmental genomic approach to study marine microorganisms in the Red Sea with a focus on marine bacteria”. The project is done in collaboration also with members of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) – the top oceanographic institute in the world. In an expedition which involved the entire research team from all contributing universities (from October 19th to November 1st 2008) WHOI participated with their research vessels to collect “filtered water samples from brine pools (hot springs imbedded in the depths of the red sea) and non-brine pool areas”. Those samples, Dr Siam explains, then come to AUC and “[AUC researchers] do the DNA extraction, library construction and then sequencing of the samples”.

One of the brine pools that they visited had a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius as well as 8 times the salinity of surface sea water, “so the bacteria that could survive under such harsh conditions would definitely be novel and provide unique insight into the genetic basis of this bacteria and how they can resist such harsh conditions”. KAUST is funding this project with a grant of over $ 6.2 million to buy the necessary genomic equipment, and they are also funding AUC’s graduate students by paying the tuition fees for those who have a scholarship. Since it is a joint project they are collaborating with KAUST’s scientists as well, and in return they will train post doctoral fellows, technicians and research assistants at AUC who will then move to KAUST.

Dr. Hamza El-Dorry (current Chair of the biology department) and Dr. Siam are both investigators on this project and each of them coordinates certain tasks. They are also hiring 4 post doctoral fellows in the field of bioinformatics, molecular biology and marine biology. In addition, they have 6 graduate students from the biotechnology program involved in this project, one of whom, Dr Rania added, went on the sample-collection expedition.

When asked about the significance of this project, Dr Rania said that in addition to their training scientists and their students, as well as doing cutting edge research in the field of molecular biology and environmental biology, doing met-genomic analysis in such harsh and unexplored regions in the Red Sea would allow for an understanding of how such bacteria are capable of withstanding such conditions. This information could in turn be applied to produce pharmaceutical drugs (e.g. cancer drugs), and it can also be used in a myriad of other biotechnological applications.

The academic benefits of this project entail the advancement of the science of biotechnology in addition to establishing a group of scientists in the region that are doing cutting edge research. As for the way in which it would benefit the environment, the team is planning on looking at the different microorganisms that are present near touristic sights of the Red Sea versus non-touristic sights which will provide them with insight as to how tourism may be affecting the environment in ways unseen by the naked eye. Samples will also be collected from sediments near coral reefs which will hopefully allow them to identify organisms that may be involved in the loss of color in coral skeletons (coral bleaching) and their death which usually follows….                                     

Special thanks to Dr. Rania Siam for contributing the  information in this article.


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