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Academic Minute

Dr. Andrea Habura, University at Albany - Single-Celled Organisms


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Andrea Habura of the University at Albany explains the importance of single-celled organisms called protists.

Andrea Habura is an assistant professor in the Department of Biolmedical Sciences at the University at Albany and a research scientist at the Wadsworth Center, where her work focuses on the molecular phylogenetics, evolution, and biogeography of protists. Dr. Habura uses evolutionary theory to tackle practical problems in medicine and ecology and works to further integrate computer technology into a variety of scientific fields. She is also a member of the International Society of Protistologists.

Dr. Andrea Habura - The Importance of Protists

You probably remember them from science class: amoebas and Paramecium scooting around in a drop of pond water. They're "protists", creatures which are related to plants and animals, but spend at least most of their lives as single cells.

But you don't need a microscope to see the effect protists have on the planet. For example, the Great Barrier Reef would be impossible without them. Corals take in protist algae - they're called dinoflagellates - and use their photosynthetic energy to grow. Coral bleaching is what happens when those algae are lost. Before you get to liking them too much, though, another dinoflagellate causes the "red tides" that poison shellfish. They aren't the only protists that have a big effect on the environment, either. Two other kinds, coccolithophores and foraminiferans, make intricate shells, and pull tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to do it. The White Cliffs of Dover are a pile of trillions of those shells.

Recent studies of protists' DNA, cell structure, and biochemistry have shown us just how diverse and sophisticated they are, and have also revealed some very surprising relationships. We now know that the dinoflagellates are related to a group of parasites called the Apicomplexa. Over a million people die every year when their red blood cells are invaded and destroyed by one of these, Plasmodium: we call this disease malaria. So, in a way, malaria is caused by a killer algae! Not only is that fact surprising, it's useful. Because Plasmodium still contains photosynthesis genes, some herbicides actually work as antimalaria drugs.

Clearly, even if you're focused on the big picture in human health or ecology small matters.

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