RWU Professors Part of Team Investigating Aquatic Viruses

By ecoRI News staff

BRISTOL, R.I. — Roger Williams University’s Marcia Marston and Koty Sharp are joining a research team from four universities to probe how viruses impact microbes critical for oxygen production and growing food.

K. Eric Wommack, deputy dean in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware, will lead the team of marine scientists, which also includes researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

The four-year project was announced Aug. 2 by the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). This collaboration is among eight projects across the United States, totaling $41.7 million, that aim to build research capacity in understanding the relationship in organisms between their genes and their physical characteristics. Uncovering this genotype-to-phenotype relationship holds potential for improved crop yields, better prediction of human disease risk, and new drug therapies, according to researchers.

The project that RWU researchers are involved with received a $3 million grant.

“Over the past several decades, scientists and engineers have made massive strides in decoding, amassing and storing genomic data,” said Denise Barnes, the EPSCoR chief. “But understanding how genomics influence phenotype remains one of the more profound challenges in science. These awards lay the groundwork for closing some of the biggest gaps in biological knowledge and developing interdisciplinary teams needed to address the challenges.”

From water and soil to the human gut, you’ll find single-celled microbes — and viruses right alongside them. A virus will infect a microbe, hijack its machinery and begin replicating, eventually killing the host. But how these processes work within complex microbial communities is still largely a mystery.

RWU’s Marston and Sharp, along with their collaborators in Delaware, Nebraska and Hawaii, will focus research on viruses that infect phytoplankton — microscopic organisms that live in the ocean and freshwater lakes and conduct photosynthesis. Each researcher on the multi-institution team will examine a marine or aquatic virus that infects a different type of phytoplankton and from all types of waterbodies.

Drawing upon her 20-year collection of marine viruses sampled from Narragansett Bay, Marston’s research will analyze the genetic connection between marine viruses from local waters and their cyanobacteria hosts, called synechococcus. Meanwhile, Sharp will train a spotlight on how viruses influence Astrangia poculata, a temperate species also known as northern star coral that inhabit waters from Florida to Massachusetts.

“As the host, phytoplankton form the base of the marine food web and are essentially what all other organisms rely on,” said Marston, a professor of biology at RWU who has received multiple NSF grants to conduct research on marine viruses in Narragansett Bay. “It’s critical for us to understand the biology of these interactions because viruses infect and often kill their hosts, which can have repercussions for organisms higher up on the food web.”

One of the goals of the multi-university collaboration will be to develop new technology to enable scientists to examine — in a droplet of water smaller than mist — how a single virus and a single microbial cell interact. Researchers aim to create new tools and resources in microfluids technology available to the broader scientific community.

Operating under the principle that oil and water don’t mix, the interdisciplinary team will create devices the size of a microscope slide, equipped with tiny incubation chambers filled with oil, to isolate individual droplets of water injected with a syringe. Molds for these microfluidic devices will be fabricated.