ECU researcher John Stiller holds a piece of Porphyr umbilicalis, a red alga common in rocky intertidal areas worldwide, on Saturday, July 22, 2017, in West Quoddy Head, Maine. Dr. Miller is a primary member of a team that helped map the genome to study its benefits as a food source.

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Daily Reflector about East Carolina University biologist John Stiller, an associate professor of plant genomics who specializes in the study of molecular evolution and algal genomics. Dr. Stiller serves as a primary researcher on a 50-member team led by the University of Maine, the Carnegie Institution for Science and ECU that sequenced and analyzed the genome of Porphyra umbilicalis, a red alga that lives in the rocky intertidal zone, one of the most dynamic and difficult habitats on the planet. These algae are thought to represent one of the oldest forms of marine life, and a major international food source – most notably, the black stuff wrapped around sushi.

Dr. Stiller and his colleagues conducted the research work for the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, supported by the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their findings were published in June by the National Academy of Science under the title, “Insights into the red algae and eukaryotic evolution from the genome of Porphyra umbilicalis.”

In the high intertidal zone it occupies, Porphyra is exposed daily and seasonally to a wide variety of environmental stresses, Dr. Stiller told The Daily Reflector. On one day, it may be immersed in seawater in the morning, then fully exposed to baking sun and drying winds at low tide in the afternoon. The next day, it could rain during low tide, meaning Porphyra blades must adjust to a large change in salinity in just a few minutes after the tide recedes. In colder months, low tides can bring snow and freezing temperatures.

“Porphyra is one of the few algae, or organisms of any kind for that matter, that can thrive in these kinds of conditions,” Dr. Stiller said. “Moreover, it has managed to persist in this environment through every mass extinction in the earth’s history, including the great Permian extinction that wiped out 80 percent of the planet’s species, and the end Cretaceous event that was responsible for the death of the dinosaurs.”

“The genome is an important resource for most research on algae and plants for human use,” Dr. Stiller said. “Understanding how to improve stress tolerance is valuable for many algae/plants used in agriculture and other human and societal enterprises. This is where our alga really shines.”

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