Bethany Jenkins

  • Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology, joint appointment with GSO
  • Biological Oceanography
  • Phone: 401.874.7551
  • Email:
  • Office Location: 279 CBLS, Kingston


When Dr. Bethany Jenkins came to URI, there were two things that attracted her to the idea of establishing an academic career on the East Coast—the Graduate School of Oceanography and the fact that the school had a close association with the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS). “I like the combination of research possibilities such as the Genomics and Sequencing Center on the main campus,” she said in an interview shortly after she arrived in 2005, “and the GSO.” Jenkins thus maintains a dual role in two colleges—while she is actually on the CELS faculty she works closely with colleagues in research projects at GSO.

As she did when she first arrived at URI, Jenkins is most interested in studying a group of phytoplankton called diatoms, which produce about a quarter of the oxygen on earth. “I liken them to the rainforest of the ocean. They are part of an important group of photosynthetic organisms that help balance carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They take it up as part of their photosynthetic processes in their cells and are really important at the bottom of the food web. They are balancing carbon and providing food for other marine animals.” Jenkins, who receives financial support from NSF, RI Sea Grant and staff funding, explains that she and her group have been using genetic and genomic methods to gain a better understanding of nutrient metabolism in the organisms that live in different ecosystems in the oceans.

“We are collaborating with marine chemists who have the ability to measure iron at very low levels in sea water.” Most of the iron in seawater is terrestrial in origin, she explains, noting that it comes from weathered rocks and wind gusts from places like the Sahara. The farther away from land, the lesser amounts of iron found in seawater. Iron is also injected into seawater from thermal plumes at the bottom of the sea. Diatoms need iron to thrive, she adds, and how they survive in areas of low iron remains a mystery—they may have a metabolism that allows them to eke out a living by gathering other nutrients but iron is the main factor that limits their growth.

While her diatom research has taken her to places like the Antarctic, Jenkins also enjoys doing research right in her adopted backyard—Narragansett Bay.

With Sea grant support, she and her team of students are trying to understand the nitrogen cycling in coastal sediments. In the summer, the bay (like some other regions of the world) can have some low-oxygen zones, i.e., “seasonal hypoxia”, and these areas stimulate anaerobic microbes which can use other elements beside oxygen for breathing. Some of these microbes can fix nitrogen. Before coming to URI, Jenkins had done some research on nitrogen-fixing bacteria in Chesapeake Bay, so in a way, the work in Narragansett Bay is an extension.

Jenkins maintains collaboration with scientists from all over the world. Gene sequencing, which is used to understand the metabolisms in marine organisms, keeps her particularly busy. “It’s a big data challenge,” she says.

Jenkins hails from the West Coast. She received her doctorate from the University of Oregon and was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Santa Cruz. She was one of several young women scientists hired at URI under the National Science Foundation Advance program. The highly successful program not only provided initial funding for their research but relieved them from teaching duties for a period of time in order for them to get established in their research. “I would like to point out, that a bunch of us were hired in the Advance program and we all have stayed.” She might have also added that all of them have obtained tenure.

Jenkins has adapted nicely to Rhode Island; she has not only gained tenure at URI but her husband has landed an important position at Brown University. Asked whether she has become fully acclimated to Rhode Island, she says resoundingly “Yes!”


Biological Oceanography

Algal blooms, Biogeochemical cycling, Carbon cycle, Genomics, Marine nitrogen cycle, Microbial biogeochemistry, Microbial ecology, Molecular ecology, Phytoplankton ecology

The research in the Jenkins lab is focused on understanding the interplay between the genetically encoded biochemical potential of marine microbes, the physicochemical properties of the environment and how these factors come together to ultimately determine community composition. Specific research questions address the molecular diversity of nutrient acquisition strategies in bacteria and phytoplankton and the comparative physiology of trace metal uptake systems in diatoms. We address these questions in both field and laboratory experiments using molecular biological and comparative genomics techniques.


Ph.D. Molecular Biology, University of Oregon 2000

B.A. Mount Holyoke College

Selected Publications

Selected Publications (* indicates URI students and postdocs as co-authors)

Dyhrman, S.T., Jenkins B.D., Rynearson, T.A., Saito, M.A, Mercier, M.L.*, Alexander H., Whitney, L.P*.,Drzewianowski A., Bulgin, V.V., Bertrand, E.M., Wu, Z., Benitez-Nelson, C., Heithoff, A., The Transcriptome and Proteome of the Diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana Reveal a Diverse Phosphorus Stress Response, PLOS One 7 (3) 2012.

Whitney, L.P.*, Lins, J.J., Hughes, M.P., Wells, M.L., Chappell, P.D.*, and Whitney, L.P., Lins, J.J., Hughes, M.P., Wells, M.L., Chappell, P.D., and Jenkins, B.D. (2011). Characterization of putative iron responsive genes as species-specific indicators of iron stress in Thalassiosiroid diatoms. Frontiers in Aquatic Microbiology 25 November. (2011). Characterization of putative iron responsive genes as species-specific indicators of iron stress in Thalassiosiroid diatoms. Frontiers in Aquatic Microbiology 25 November.

Wu, Z., Jenkins, B.D., Rynearson, T.A., Dyhrman, S.T., Saito, M.A., Mercier, M.* & Whitney, L. P.* Empirical Bayes Analysis of Sequencing-based Transcriptional Profiling. BMC Bioinformatics 2010 Nov 16;11(1):564 (0).

Kudela, R.M., Howard, M.D.A., Jenkins, B.D., Miller, P.E. and Smith, G.J. Using the Molecular Toolbox to Compare Harmful Algal Blooms in Upwelling Systems. Progress in Oceanography 85 (1-2) 108-121 (2010) (1).

Paerl, R.W., Foster, R.A., Jenkins, B.D., Montoya, J.P. and Zehr, J.P. Phylogenetic diversity of cyanobacterial narB genes from various marine habitats. Environ. Microbiol. 10 (12) 3377-3387 (2008) (3).

Bowler, C., et al (including Jenkins, B.D) The Phaeodactylum genome reveals the evolutionary history of diatom genomes. Nature 456 (7219): 239-234 (2008) (167).

Jenkins, B.D. and Zehr, J.P., (2008). Molecular Approaches to the Nitrogen Cycle. In. Nitrogen in the Marine Environment, Capone, D.G., Bronk, D.A., Mulholland, M.R. and Carpenter, E.J. (Editors). Elsevier, Oxford, UK.