Local scientist earns prestigious ocean research award to continue microbe research
In a lab bursting with state-of-the art equipment and analytical instruments, Alexandra Worden pores over the latest genetic data from microbes freshly scooped out of sunny ocean waters. Around her, a team of UC Santa Cruz graduate students, visiting scientists, and interns are hard at work delving into the mysteries of these tiny organisms.
Worden is an internationally recognized scientist whose bustling research lab at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) is a mecca for studying ocean microbes—invisibly small creatures essential to ocean ecosystems and the planet’s health.
Worden, who lives with her two young daughters and husband in Capitola, came to MBARI, a facility devoted to ocean research, in 2007.
Her pioneering work in marine environmental ecology recently earned her a prestigious Investigator Award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
The foundation’s Genny Biggs says the award goes to scientists with “creativity, innovation, and potential to make major, new breakthroughs.”
Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, and his wife Betty created the Palo Alto-based foundation in 2000 so that leading scientists could take research risks that other funders are reluctant to support.
“We are big believers in the inherent value of science and basic research, and the sense of awe that discovery inspires,” says Biggs. “We try to bring people together, create synergies, and transform—or even create—entire fields of science.”
Worden is one of 16 awardees announced last December, after an extensive review process of more than 180 applicants worldwide. Each will receive $200,000 to $500,000 a year for the next five years.
The beauty of this award, Worden explains, is that “it funds people, not projects. So instead of laying out a safe, prescribed research plan, I have a lot more freedom to do things that are creative and highly experimental.”
That approach can allow for huge progress, she says. She points to important discoveries stemming from high-risk research in the area of human health over the last several decades. “It’s really important that we take similar risks in environmental research,” she says.
Worden didn’t always plan on studying microscopic cells, however. She began her academic career as a history major at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, but knew she wanted to eventually earn a doctorate exploring the interface of environment and society. To prepare for that, she took science courses at nearby MIT, completing a BA in history with a concentration in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. Worden obtained a doctorate in ecology from the University of Georgia, and did postdoctoral research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
High on her research list are prasinophytes: single-celled marine algae about the size of bacteria. They contain chlorophyll, which makes them part of the ocean’s microbial greenery that keeps us, and every oxygen-breathing life form, alive. With the aid of sunlight, they take in carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. Very little is known about prasinophyte ecology and evolution, but Worden is remedying that.
“It’s hard to imagine,” she says, “but these ocean algae are modern representatives of cells that gave rise to all the green life on land. Until we sequenced their DNA and analyzed their genomes, we didn’t realize how much they are akin to land plants.”
Because of that similarity, Worden says that prasinophytes could become a new model for studying plants as large as redwoods. “They can help us understand aspects of land plant development,” she says, “like how sunlight triggers the change from seed to photosynthetic seedling. That’s much easier to study in a single cell than a large plant.”
Although the majority of her work is done in the lab, Worden and her crew can also be found riding the seas on a research ship. “You need to be in the field to discover the next critter rather than just focus on the ones you can grow in the lab,” she says. “But you also need lab work to test hypotheses in a controlled way, and then move right back to the field and see if they hold up.”
And even though she works hard on board, Worden says it’s wonderfully freeing to be connecting with the sea. “On the ocean, surrounded by its vastness, all the things that weigh you down on land seem inconsequential,” she says. “To me, that’s comforting.”
However, looking out at the water, Worden is also reminded of environmental threats facing the oceans today. She worries about how the ocean’s microbial soup will tolerate human activities.
“As we dump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs it and becomes more acidic,” she explains. “When that happens, it’s harder for organisms to maintain homeostasis. Although they might survive, they may be doing so in a compromised state, much like an immunocompromised person may find health problems more damaging than would a healthy individual.”
She hopes that her research can increase understanding about marine algae, and thereby raise awareness about why it’s important they remain healthy. “We rely on these organisms to make oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, and we have no idea if they can continue to provide that ecosystem service as ocean conditions change,” she says.