CELS researcher studies small organisms to solve big problems

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Dr. Chris Lane collects samples in the Arctic Ocean off the eastern coast of Baffin Island

There’s a reason why Associate Professor Dr. Chris Lane studies the largest oxygen producer on the planet. Phytoplankton, the marine plant at the foundation of the ocean food chain, is not well documented or understood, according to Lane, even though it makes up the vast majority of all ocean life. “There is a gap in knowledge about what’s actually out there in the oceans,” says Lane of his research at the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS). He hopes his work studying some of the world’s smallest organisms will help others better understand global issues such as climate change, life-threatening malaria, and devastating crop diseases.

Phytoplankton is crucial for helping scientists gauge how ocean ecosystems will respond to weather pattern changes, temperature fluctuations, and ocean acidification resulting from climate change. That’s why Lane collects, catalogues, and studies ocean samples of phytoplankton and its cousin, seaweed, from all over the world.

In Bermuda, an island at the transition between sub-tropical and temperate zones, Lane and his team are laying the groundwork to detect shifts in the organisms that live along the coast. He hopes that by documenting the biodiversity of seaweeds today, he’ll be able to monitor how the species change with increasing temperatures in the future.  “We can’t fully understand how the ocean will react to climate change without first knowing what’s in it,” he maintains.

Lane’s careful study of unique and different seaweeds led him to new discoveries beyond climate change impacts. “We found wildly diverse seaweeds performing ecological functions that we didn’t even know were happening,” he explains. 

Of the dozens of species that Lane has named, he notes that parasitic red algae, which has an unusual mechanism of infecting its host species, was of particular interest. “They were weird in that they basically dumped their cell contents into the host,” almost like a virus, he notes.

His discovery of new organisms opened up a whole new avenue of research for him and his research lab, understanding how new parasites evolve. If we can better understand how parasitic seaweeds develop, Lane explains, then we may be able to transfer that knowledge to combat malaria or crop diseases, both caused by parasites that have plant-like ancestors. “We think there is some core evolutionary process that they all share,” explains Lane.

DNA sequencing and high-speed “flow-through” cameras allow Lane to capture important information on microscopic organisms in streams of water. The state-of-the-art flow-through cameras he uses at URI are only available at select institutions across the country. Lane says his access to this type of equipment as well as the modern facilities at URI have “really pushed my research forward.”

During his eight years at CELS, Lane received four highly competitive national grants for his research, totaling over 3.6 million dollars. Three of his grants came from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and one from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, even in the face of his success, he maintains that failure is a major part any scientific career.

“Science is probably about eighty percent rejection,” laughs Lane, recounting how he submitted one NSF proposal eight times before finally being awarded funding.

Lane hopes that his personal experience with rejection signals to CELS undergraduates that failure is OK, and that perseverance is essential to a scientist’s success. He encourages budding scholars to experience, firsthand, the often circuitous route of research by becoming involved in one of CELS’ high-quality labs.

“We always see the end-product of science – the discovery – but you don’t see the years of toiling it took to get there,” says Lane. “Persistence is key feature of being a scientist.”

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Lane SCUBA dives with colleagues to collect seaweed off the coast of Rhode Island.