UBC researcher awarded $1.9 million Moore Foundation grant to explore aquatic symbioses

A UBC researcher has been awarded a $1.9 million grant for research into symbiotic microorganisms and their role in coral reef ecosystem health.

Dr. Patrick Keeling, a biologist and professor in the UBC department of botany, was awarded the prize under the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative investigator program which seeks to support investigators in pursuing creative, high-risk research with the potential to uncover groundbreaking results.

Endosymbiosis, defined as an organism living within the cells of another organism, and the single-celled protists who engage in such, constitute the central topic of Keeling’s research. Protists can take up residence in coral organisms, performing many functions in coral reefs, and can themselves be colonized by bacteria.

A major theme of his work is the study of the evolutionary processes of endosymbiosis in the context of protists and the integration and evolution of those processes. The determination and analysis of the various roles played by protists in healthy coral reefs is a major topic, with only a few having been studied in detail.

Exploration of the symbiotic system allows for insights into fundamental evolutionary processes that are hard to study in any other system says Keeling.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is an American foundation founded by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and Betty Moore to support research and scientific discovery into globally impactful fields such as environmental conservation.

“This grant … is very flexible and we can explore what we found around [the topic of endosymbiosis],” said Keeling. “We have other funding from other places, but most of this is project based, so funding to pursue a specific question in a specific way.”

The research provides insights on topics such as the evolution of parasites, including the protozoa — single celled eukaryotes — that cause malaria, a disease causing hundreds of thousands of deaths on a yearly basis. The endosymbiosis of organelles essential to life such as mitochondria and chloroplasts is also a topic of study.

Keeling described the work as being basic research looking to clarify fundamental processes in the area. He described the process as attempting to look into a “lot of assumptions [having been made], that are wrong.”

“So we want to make people stop and think about those assumptions and consider alternatives,” said Keeling.

Research conducted by Keeling’s team has offered better understanding of the roles and immense diversity of the microorganisms comprising the coral reef ecosystem. Keeling and his team have also discovered a multitude of microorganisms including long-flagellated organisms named after the Canadian band Rush, and another named after the fictional creature Cthulhu.

Describing the grant as an opportunity to conduct discovery-based work without the confines of having to pursue a specific field from a specific approach, Keeling outlined the potential of the grant as laying in the freedom it affords his lab in pursuing the study of protists and endosymbiosis from a multitude of perspectives.

“Nature is so under explored, especially microbial life, that you can almost never guess what the most interesting question is going to be,” said Keeling.“You have to explore and see what comes up, and be able to recognize the interesting questions when they appear.

“We are very excited to see where it leads.”