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Applied Biosystems and Dr. Alison Murray

A partnership for the advancement of science

Alison E. Murray, Ph.D.

Associate Research Professor
Desert Research Institute

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nevada is a world leader in environmental sciences, with research projects ranging from watershed issues in Nevada to the preservation of China's Terracotta Warriors to assisting the Army with desert terrain issues in the Middle East.

For the past six years, Alison Murray, a molecular microbial biologist and Associate Research Professor at the DRI, has been studying Antarctic organisms in their natural environment in order to better understand the impacts of climate change. We recently talked with Alison about how her team uses the StepOnePlus™ Real-Time PCR instrument from Applied Biosystems to quantify DNA and RNA from organisms in the wintertime waters of the Southern Ocean.

What is your area of expertise and what inspired you to pursue your current line of work?

My expertise is in the areas of biochemistry and molecular biology, and I have primarily focused on studying microbial organisms in aquatic environments for the past 15 years.

I became interested in microbial ecology in the early 90's when I realized that we really had very little knowledge about the micro-organisms living in the environment and the type of work they were doing. I had come from working on macro-organisms where we could go to the field and actually count and identify them, and I was intrigued with the idea that there were so many microbes out there — a huge diversity of life in the natural environment — just waiting to be discovered and studied.

What makes Palmer Station in Antarctica an interesting place to conduct your research?

Palmer Station is a four-day boat ride from South America in an area of Antarctica that has undergone a significant regional climate change over the last 50 years. It is a high-latitude environment where what happens in the marine ecosystem changes dramatically between seasons. We are very interested in understanding the differences between the organisms that are adapted to living there in the Antarctic winter versus those living there in the Antarctic summer.

Why did you choose the StepOnePlus for this research?

Our goal was to analyze the relationship between an organism's distribution and its gene expression patterns. The StepOnePlus was one of the newer quantitative PCR instruments on the market, and it had all the capabilities we needed to do that. Plus, its small size made it very easy to take with us into the field.

What results have you achieved to date at Palmer Station?

The StepOnePlus enabled us to identify gene expression patterns of organisms that we think are performing important roles in the environment. For example, one of the things we were studying is the balance between heterotrophy and chemo-autootrophy in which organisms are fixing carbon — a metabolic process that we think is essential for organisms to make energy during the Antarctic winter period.

Using quantitative PCR, we could determine whether the organisms that we suspect are responsible for the carbon fixation process were actually there, and then we could ask the second question of whether the gene that is involved in this process was being expressed at the time.

What ultimate impact do you expect this work to have?

This area of the Antarctic Peninsula is undergoing a significant regional warming. The results of our research are helping us understand what processes are taking place, how they vary in different seasons, and how climate change is impacting the metabolic roles of organisms that are performing essential functions for the marine environment. By monitoring the organisms and the gene expression patterns that affect the dynamics of roles like nutrient cycling to provide nutrients for higher organisms, we will be better able to predict what will happen under different climate change scenarios.

What excites you most about the work you're doing now?

Besides bringing the StepOnePlus instruments to Palmer Station for quantitative PCR, I was also involved in teaching an advanced-level graduate training course at McMurdo Station using the 3100XL DNA sequencer from AB.

With state-of-the-art sequence and community profiling technologies available to us in the field, we were able to profile microbial communities from a number of different environments that we were sampling in the sea ice, in the ocean, and in a whole series of different types of ice-covered ponds. In the morning, we would be out in the field collecting samples and in the afternoon we were back in the lab extracting DNA and getting samples ready to run on the genetic analyzer. It was very fortuitous for the 20 graduate students we had training with us, and I hope to continue to bring advanced instrumentation to the field in the future, whether it's working on ships or at other stations in Antarctica.

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