CAREER: Genomic Networks for Cold-Adaptation in Embryos of Polar Marine Invertebrates
Although the cold ocean ecosystems comprise seventy-two percent of the biosphere on Earth by volume, they remain sparsely inhabited and relatively unexploited, particularly in terms of metazoan phyla. Consequently, the few animals that can exist at this border of intracellular freezing represent ideal systems for exploring genomic-level processes of environmental adaptations. Understanding life at a margin of the biosphere is likely to convey significant insights into the essential genomic processes necessary for survival under intense selection pressures. This study of adaptive mechanisms in genomic networks focuses on an experimental system that faces a formidable challenge for viability at low water temperatures: embryonic development at sea water temperatures of -1.8 o C in two Antarctic echinoderms, the sea star Odontaster validus and the sea urchin Sterechinus neumayeri. The project strategy will quantify temperature effects on gene expression and protein turnover networks during early development using a Bayesian network analysis to identify clusters of genes and proteins whose expression levels are associated in fixed, synergistic interactions. Ultimately, there is a simple question to be addressed: Is it more or less difficult (complex) for an embryo to develop in an extreme environment? To answer this question, the research plan will decipher network topologies and subnet structuring to uncover gene connectivity patterns associated with embryo development in this polar environment. This is the new area of Environmental Genomics that the PI will explore by expanding his research experience into computational network analyses. Overall, there is a significant need for integrative biologists in the future development of environmental sciences, particularly for the application of genomic-scale technologies to answer ecological-scale questions. The educational goals of this CAREER proposal are focused at two levels in terms of interesting young students in the developing field of environmental genomics: 1) increasing the racial diversity of the scientists attracted to environmental research, and 2) increasing the awareness of career opportunities within environmental research.
These educational objectives are incorporated into the research plan to engage students with the excitement of working in an extreme environment such as Antarctica and to interest them in the insights that genome-level research can reveal about how organisms are adapted to specific habitats. Working in a remote, extreme environment such as Antarctica is always a challenge. However, the adventurous nature of the work can be utilized to establish educational and outreach components of high interest to both undergraduate students and the public in general. The proposed plan will bring the experience of working in Antarctica to a larger audience through several means. These include the following: the project theme of environmental genomics will be incorporated into a new Bioinformatics curriculum currently being developed at the University of Delaware; an intern program will be implemented to involved minority undergraduate students in summer research in the United States and then to bring the students to Antarctica to participate in the research; and a K-12 education program will bring the excitement of working in Antarctica to the classrooms of thousands of children (U.S. and international) through a program produced with the Marine Science Public Education Office at the University of Delaware.
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