The very tiny organisms of the microscopic marine life that reside in the oceans and rivers that make our waters blue, green and even red are called plankton. These planktons are single-celled organisms that are food for the larger organisms that are part of the marine ecosystem. In 2015, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation that supports research about microbes donated $8 million to scientific researchers to study the DNA of microscopic marine life. They picked 39 species to work on. Due to their economic value, some species were chosen — protist-linked red tides and other algal blooms can be devastating for fisheries and recreation — and some because they represented different branches of the protist family tree.
The teams gathered creatures such as archaeplastida, opisthokont, and coccolithophore, mostly from coastal water. And further to explore the genes, the scientists had to get a foreign DNA into those creatures. After trying they figured out two ways to do that- Shooting tiny DNA-coated gold or tungsten particles and often using electricity to zap cell membranes to make them leaky so that DNA can fit in. The next move was to make the DNA become part of the genome, or at least convert it into a protein.
The gene often got in and started making proteins. But it was destroyed at times by the defenses of the protist. For other cases, researchers found that the enzymes that they normally use for genetic manipulation did not function at the low temperatures some of the protists live at, so they needed to develop new enzymes to do the job.
The researchers have been able to attach genes to 13 animals and find out a way to unlock the DNA of microscopic marine life. The study will also help to explain how the protists function. Through altering their DNA and observing how the nature, function or biochemistry of the protists changes, the researchers begin to understand what certain genes are doing. For example, genes that influence the ability of the protists to fend off bacteria can code for proteins that could lead to new antibiotics for humans.