Thomas Mock – Marine Microbiology
What do you do?
I’m a professor of marine microbiology at UEA. My research area is the adaptation and evolution of microalgae in the ocean. They are hugely important but rarely seen by the public. They live in the ocean surface but not at high densities. Oceans cover 71% of the Earth surface, which makes algae (like floating plants), just as important if not more than all of the land plants together. Oxygen for every second breath you take is made from ocean microbes such as algae. Algae are also the basis of the marine food-web. So, all the fish we eat and large populations of whales all depend on them. One of my main question addresses how global warming will impact floating algae in the ocean. So, we try to study their evolution and adaptation in real-time. PhD students might perform experiments where evolution is followed over 2-3 years. We put a selection of some key algae in flasks and change their environment to simulate conditions observed under global warming. We would then take interval samples and track the changes in their genes that are expressed, mutation rates and changes in population structure. However, the downside is, with these experiments, we will never be able to completely mimic natural environmental conditions, because everything is almost changing simultaneously. These changes cannot be simulated within the constraints of lab conditions. So, it is important to understand and dissect the role of several important environmental factors in the environment and control them individually.
In the image you can see a particle gun. It is the most important machine in our lab because it enables transformation (introduction of new genetic material) of algae. The algae we work with, diatoms, produce and live in silica ‘greenhouses’. This makes it hard to introduce new genetic payload to the organism. The ‘gun’ uses a vacuum to shoot particles at the cells. The process is inefficient, only a few cells out of a million survive the process, but this is enough to conduct experiments.
When I’m not doing science I…
Normally I try to be down by the seaside and enjoy the ocean. In the 80’s when I was 15/16 I started scuba diving. This started my passion for the ocean, now I can’t imagine living far from it. In the summer we always drive to the coast as much as possible. My whole family are seafood lovers, we go to north France for oysters. I have been terribly sick from sea oysters several times, but I still eat them, I can’t stop because for me they are the food that tastes most like the ocean, and to quote one of my sons while he was eating oysters and had a slice of bread with it: “ bread reminds me how much landfood sucks”. I could not agree more.