Biologist Marie Nydam Receives SUA’s First National Science Foundation Grant

September 01, 2021
Person working with aquarium tanks in lab

Marie Nydam, assistant professor of biology, has received a research grant from the National Science Foundation. A marine evolutionary geneticist, Prof. Nydam is the first SUA faculty member to be part of a research project funded by the NSF.

Prof. Nydam and two collaborators will use the $662,000 award to expand knowledge of marine invertebrate ascidians, commonly known as sea squirts.

“I am fascinated by Marie’s work, which I sometimes describe as a 23andMe for marine invertebrates that unlocks the genetic codes within the creatures and also the pathways by which these creatures migrate across the earth, sometimes aided by human trade,” said Bryan Penprase, vice president for sponsored research and external academic relations.

“Marie’s work also is so well connected to Soka’s mission as it helps students understand our common global connections and how nature and humanity are so integrally connected,” he said. “She has done amazing interdisciplinary work in her research and teaching, and has added so much to Soka since she has arrived. We are very proud of her accomplishments and what she has brought to SUA and to our new Life Sciences concentration.”

We spoke to Prof. Nydam about her research, her passion for sea life, and teaching at SUA.

For those of us who aren’t familiar with sea squirts, tell us about them and why they are interesting subjects for study.

Sea squirts are our closest invertebrate relatives and are of great evolutionary, ecological, and economic significance. Ascidians can be used as models to study the evolution of chordates, which include humans and all other vertebrates.

As animals that are often introduced to non-native areas in which they thrive, ascidians can alter natural communities and result in considerable economic losses to the aquaculture industry. Also, like other marine invertebrates, sea squirts can be an important source of drugs to treat human diseases. For example, the drug ecteinascidin is used to treat rare cancers called sarcomas.

Despite the important role of ascidians in marine communities, many species remain undiscovered. Identifying ascidian species is vital but it is also challenging, as physical differences are often microscopic and the DNA barcode commonly used in animals is not always sufficient. There are currently about 3,500 identified species, while the number of unidentified species is estimated to be about 1,000.

These gaps in species diversity and distribution are a significant concern for conservation biology and reserve management. Conservation efforts are most effective when scientists and managers understand the complexities of the communities in a region, and this understanding is predicated on deep knowledge of diversity and abundance. Coral reefs are a particularly vulnerable marine habitat, which is why we are focusing on ascidians in coral reefs for this grant.

Describe the research this grant is supporting.

This project has three primary objectives. The first is to develop new molecular markers from across the nuclear genome and the ascidian tree of life. Finding a new reliable set of DNA regions will allow researchers to accurately identify ascidian species and address important questions in invasive species spread and chordate evolution.

Our second goal is to apply these novel markers to create the first catalog of ascidian diversity in artificial habitats such as harbors and in a natural one—a Belizean reef habitat. This inventory will not only extend our knowledge of ascidian biodiversity and distribution along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, but will also document the prevalence of introduced ascidian species and provide identification based on integrated molecular and morphological data for over 40 species never sequenced before.

Finally, this project will characterize ascidian gut microbiomes and map variations. Microbes appear to play a significant role in the evolution of chordate hosts. Characterizing the ascidian gut microbiome will shed light on the microbiome’s role in host evolution and the successful establishment of these animals in new habitats.

By combining traditional morphology with newly developed molecular markers, then applying this integrative approach to identifying species and investigating microbial symbiosis, this project will significantly advance our understanding of ascidian diversity and phylogenetics, biological invasions, and chordate evolution.

How did your collaboration with the other investigators come about?

There are only about 200 researchers worldwide who study ascidians, and only a handful who study ascidian evolution. We all know each other from the International Tunicata Meeting, which has been happening every two years since 2000. I collaborated with Lauren Stefaniak of Coastal Carolina University, and Susanna Lopez-Legentil of University of North Carolina, Wilmington, on a survey of ascidians in Florida in 2017. In 2020, the Florida project was nearing its conclusion and I wanted to continue to work with these talented women, so I suggested that we seek a grant from the National Science Foundation. We wanted to document ascidian biodiversity in an understudied region, and settled on the Caribbean. Prof. Lopez-Legentil and I had both been to a field station in Belize that we knew would be a perfect base of operations.

What sparked your own interest in marine biology?

I grew up in San Diego, and my dad used to take my sister and me to the tidepools from the time we were very young. I settled on marine biology as a career when I was 10 or 11, and I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. My mom worked as a teacher, and my dad trained as a biologist, so I think I was destined to become a biology teacher.

Will any Soka students be working with you on this project?

Yes. Summer funding will be provided for two students in each of the three summers the grant covers. The grant also includes funding for a workshop in which SUA students and students from other local universities can learn how to identify ascidians.

Are you seeing more students interested in marine biology as more become aware of climate change and its impact on our oceans?

I am. I teach a course called Nature and Humanity, and I focus this course on the impacts of climate change on humans. I also teach Marine Biology, where we study the impacts of climate change on coral reefs in particular. The students who take these classes are very concerned about climate change and eager to focus on solutions.

What about teaching at Soka do you personally find most gratifying?

SUA students are a delight to teach. They are curious about the world, self-motivated, kind, and mature. They teach me new things about the world every semester.