New Horizons in Science

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The tiny cell with a big-genome "app store"

Sunday, October 11, 2015 -
9:30am to 10:30am

Technology inventors could learn a thing or two from Prochlorococcus. Long before smartphones came along, the smallest and most abundant photosynthetic cell on the planet evolved a collective gene pool of at least 80,000 genes (compared to the human gene pool of about 20,000)—effectively an app store full of tools for keeping the genus going. Just as each mobile electronic device runs a selected set of apps, each individual cell has about 2,000 genes, and the core operating system might be about 1,200. Penny Chisholm, a discover of Prochlorococcus almost 30 years ago, has discovered much about the Earth and natural selection by studying this single, abundant phytoplankton genus. Most recently, her lab has found that seawater is filled with vesicles—"snack packets" of RNA, DNA, lipids, and proteins—that may be a form or DNA exchange for dilute phytoplankton like Prochlorococcus. They may also serve as chaff or decoys, part of bacterial defenses against viral infection. Twitter: @Prochlorococcus

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