$1 million grant awarded to InCEES Director and UCSC Professor

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded a two-year, $1 million grant to Himadri B. Pakrasi, the Myron and Sonya Glassberg/Albert and Blanche Greensfelder Distinguished University Professor and director of the International Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (InCEES), to collaborate with Jonathan Zehr, Distinguished Professor of Ocean Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Pakrasi and Zehr labs will develop methods to study uncultivated microorganisms and the symbiotic relationship between oceanic cyanobacteria and microalgae, as part of the Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative.

“The well-being of oceanic life is fundamentally important for the sustainability of the planet,” said Pakrasi. “The information garnered from this study has the potential to influence an array of fields of science.”

“This research is significant because it will lead to the development of methods for studying important and unique microorganisms in the ocean,” said Zehr. “We hope to provide the Pakrasi laboratory with the samples that enable them to determine basic cellular and physiological features of one particular symbiosis, which is uncultivated and yet it is one of the most important nitrogen-fixing microorganisms that fertilizes the open ocean with nitrogen.”

Certain cyanobacteria can convert nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into a form that other organisms use for growth (a process called nitrogen-fixation). This is important because nitrogen is an essential building block for all life forms. In contrast, microalgae are incapable of nitrogen-fixation. However, Zehr and his research team identified cyanobacteria in the ocean that are incapable of growing on its own and connect themselves to the algae to survive.

“This collaboration brings in new and unique instrumentation funded by the Moore Foundation that is necessary for studying the physiology of cyanobacteria and algae, which are very difficult to capture and isolate,” said Pakrasi. “By teaming up with Dr. Zehr and his group, we are able to bring in the tools of genomics, synthetic biology and biochemistry to understand how these organisms are dependent on one another.”

The Pakrasi and Zehr labs will convene with Moore Foundation officials for the first time in San Francisco, CA for a kick-off meeting in mid-February.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area. Visit moore.org and follow @MooreFound.