The EMS Project

Wendy Wu ’22

Figure 1: Not much is known about protists, but they are ecologically important and surprisingly, biologically diverse. 

Microbial life is usually associated with bacteria and archaea, often overlooking the existence of protists, eukaryotic microbes. Recent research has shown protists to play vital roles in their environment, especially in driving marine biogeochemical cycles and food webs. The ocean, which spans 70% of Earth’s surface, is home to a variety of microbial life. Despite this fact, there is a lack of experimental model systems, or well-studied organisms that provide an understanding of particular biological processes, for studying microbial oceanography. Dr. Jackie Collier, Associate Professor of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, was part of one of 41 research groups that participated in the Environmental Model Systems (EMS) Project. The goal of the project was to develop genetic tools for protists, in hopes of establishing a model organism to aid further research into marine microbiota. 

The research groups aimed to improve existing protocols for genetic manipulation of protists, as well as establish new protocols for different protist species. The EMS Project involved 39 species carefully selected from multiple eukaryotic subgroups. Researchers faced the challenge of their diverse selection; despite the fact that most taxa were taken from coastal habitats, they required distinct cultivation conditions, and some were not even able to be completely isolated. After identifying these cultivation conditions, the teams attempted to introduce DNA into the marine protists. Using a variety of methods like PCR, Southern blotting, and whole genome sequencing, the researchers identified whether introduced DNA was incorporated into the protist genome or maintained as a plasmid. Other methods like RT-PCR and Western blotting helped to determine if the exogenous genes were expressed. 

Of the 39 species, the research groups were able to develop new protocols for 13 species and advanced existing protocols for eight species. They also provided valuable data on what did not work for 17 species. For these species, despite the teams’ efforts, transformation either did not take, or did take, but gene expression was not confirmed. Nevertheless, their data transforms protists into an emerging model organism. While a standard protocol was not developed because protists are so phenotypically and genetically diverse, the EMS Project generates deeper understanding of marine evolutionary systems and allows further research into aquatic sciences, nanotechnology, and more. 

Works Cited:

[1] D. Faktorová, et al., Genetic tool development in marine protists: emerging model organisms for experimental cell biology. Nat Methods 17, 481-494 (2020). doi: 10.1038/s41592-020-0796-x.

[2] Image retrieved from:


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