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  October 9, 2000

Molecular Biologist Seeks to Solve
Mystery of Marine Microorganism

At the Avery Point campus, in a small, cramped laboratory of the marine sciences building, grows a mysterious microorganism. It's a particular species of phytoplankton that is responsible for creating harmful algal blooms from Florida to New Jersey, causing massive fish kills and making dozens of people sick. It's anybody's guess as to when or if it will make its presence known along New England's coastal waters.

The detective attempting to unravel the intricacies of Pfiesteria piscicida is Senjie Lin, an assistant professor and the newest member of UConn's marine sciences department. The first molecular biologist hired by the department, Lin joined UConn last year, from the faculty at SUNY-Stony Brook.

Even though the marine sciences faculty interviewed a number of good candidates for the position the decision was an easy one, says Robert Whitlatch, head of marine sciences. "Lin overwhelmed us with his knowledge and ability to communicate how his expertise as a molecular biologist could add a new dimension to our department as a whole, as well as to our individual research projects."

Lin arrived at the Avery Point campus with a new three-year grant for $525,000 in his pocket. The funding from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is to determine the factors affecting the growth of Pfiesteria piscicida (the Latin word piscicida means "fish killer").

The organism's first documented appearance was in 1988, when fish from an aquarium were poisoned by a toxin given off during an algal bloom - an unusually high concentration of algae - in North Carolina. Two researchers from North Carolina State University were also poisoned while working on this toxic alga. They suffered a variety of symptoms, including memory loss, fatigue and headache.

It took another four years before scientists identified the responsible organism and gave it a name. Since then outbreaks of Pfiesteria and related species have grown in frequency and spread to other East Coast regions. The federal government is funding a handful of research projects in an effort to get a handle on this growing threat to humans and the environment.

Lin is trying to identify the genes that play a role in the algae's growth. "It is very important that we figure out what controls these guys in the field and how toxins are produced," he says. "We have found some conditions in my lab that make it grow like crazy."

The cultures he is growing in his laboratory are non-toxic, but one characteristic that makes Pfiesteria so unusual is its ability to change forms, from a non-toxic state to a toxic one, and then back again. Lin says it seems to have a genetic regulator that is induced when fish feed on it.

When he started the project, he had no idea what fun he would have.

"This organism is very interesting and very bizarre," Lin says. "Although this particular harmful algal bloom is relatively new in the environment, the organism may have been around for millions of years. It may be because of environmental changes that, over time, the organism started reacting to those changes."

Some of those environmental changes are, in large part, the result of high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen in marine waters or the loss of balance between them. Sewage treatment plants, leaking septic systems and agricultural runoff are typically the biggest sources of the two nutrients.

"The more work we do, the more work we find we need to do - particularly for harmful algal bloom species like Pfiesteria," Lin says. "We know so little about it and there are still so many organisms in the water we don't know anything about."

Whitlatch, a marine biologist, concurs. He says having Lin's expertise available to other faculty in the department will better equip them for learning and understanding more about life in the ocean.

"Using molecular tools in marine sciences is a relatively new practice," Whitlatch says. "In the past, we would try to characterize organisms by using methods developed within the field, but now they are considered crude techniques in comparison to those developed for molecular biology."

This type of interdisciplinary teamwork has the attention of the National Science Foundation and the agency is making new funding available to those who are interested in bridging molecular biology and marine sciences.

As part of the UConn team, Lin makes the marine sciences department more competitive for research grants, and his expertise broadens the students' educational experience, Whitlatch says: "The students will leave here better prepared and more competitive in the job market. It's a win-win situation for all of us."

Janice Palmer