UNO Biologist Awarded $600K Grant to Study Light Harvesting Proteins in Bacteria

BacteriaUniversity of New Orleans professor Wendy Schluchter was awarded a 4-year $632,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study light harvesting proteins in bacteria.

University of New Orleans professor Wendy Schluchter was awarded a 4-year $632,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study light harvesting proteins in bacteria. The project has a wide variety of applications including the development of tools that can aid all types of cell biology research, including research into how diseases like cancer occur, according to Schluchter.

Schluchter's research focuses on cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, which are the base of the food chain and use light from the sun to obtain energy. Cyanobacteria often grow in the ocean where other organisms higher in the food chain depend on them, but cyanobacteria are also competing with other photosynthetic organisms for the low amounts of light that can penetrate deeper in the ocean.

Most photosynthetic organisms make one set of proteins that absorb light for photosynthesis, but some cyanobacteria have evolved a mechanism to produce different sets of proteins, depending upon their environment. These cells only produce the "best" set of proteins that can harvest the color or wavelength of light that their cells are experiencing.

Schluchter recently co-authored a paper on the topic that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from UNO, Indiana University and the Université de Paris studied a group of highly abundant cyanobacteria called Synechococcus, which are found all over the world's oceans. The scientists believe that one of the main reasons this group of cyanobacteria is so prolific is its ability to acclimate to its environment and successfully compete with other organisms for available light in the ocean.

"Understanding how these light harvesting proteins are produced will benefit scientific research in general because these proteins can be used to locate any protein of interest due to their brilliant colors and intense fluorescent properties," said Schluchter, a professor and chair of biological sciences. "This research will have wide applications in biotechnology and cell biology, including cancer research."