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MSU fossil study gains international attention

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Research developed using an $832,000 National Science Foundation grant in a Mississippi State University biologist’s lab gained international attention last week in Current Biology, a premier bi-monthly scientific journal.

Matthew Brown’s paper—“Phylogenomics and Morphological Reconstruction of Arcellinida Testate Amoebae Highlight Diversity of Microbial Eukaryotes in the Neoproterozoic”— appears in the Feb. 28th edition of Current Biology. Brown additionally discusses the topic in a current piece also published today on The Conversation (theconversation.com).

Matthew Brown. Photo courtesy of Logan Kirkland/MSU

An assistant professor of biological sciences at MSU and senior author on the Current Biology paper, Brown and his team focus on linking ancient fossils to modern living organisms using a new method, advanced in his lab, which bypasses genome sequencing.

“By sampling organisms that are alive today, we can ask deeper questions about their evolution that happened millions of years ago in now extinct ancestors,” Brown said.

Working alongside Brown are Assistant Professor Daniel Lahr from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil; MSU post-doctoral fellow and Fulbright Scholar Tomáš Pánek from the Czech Republic; and current MSU doctoral students Alexander Tice and Seungho Kang.

With the advent of DNA sequencing in the early 2000s until now, researchers have used a relatively small piece of the genome to examine the relationships between organisms, with limited success.

In 2015, through NSF grant support, Brown developed a new process of taking a single-celled organism directly from the environment and sequencing its entire transcriptome, what Brown calls “the blueprint of all the proteins it makes.”

“This work is adding to our fundamental knowledge of how basic features of living organisms have evolved over millions of years,” said Angus Dawe, head of MSU’s biological sciences department. “This includes the morphologies and origins of behaviors, such as interactions between cells, which have huge implications for our understanding of organismal development and disease.”

“What makes this study revolutionary is that we are using a cutting-edge technique perfected in my lab to study a single testate amoeba cell taken from the environment,” Brown said, likening the amoeba to “micro snails” with microscopic shells making them identifiable. “The cool thing about these organisms is they fossilize well, which is rare for microbial eukaryotes.”

He said the comparisons he and his team are able to make between ancient fossils and today’s living organisms helps him better understand the “family tree” connecting the old and the new.

“Effectively, we now know how the organisms alive today are related to each other in a tree of life called a phylogeny,” Brown said.

Brown’s lab and an international group of colleagues used fossils from Brazil and Arizona dating back 766 million years for their study.

“To put this into perspective, the oldest dinosaur shows up in the fossil record about 230 million years ago,” Brown said.

Testate amoeba are single-celled microbes that can be found in places like moss beds, soils and in freshwater, but during Lahr’s 2015 MSU visit, Brown and Lahr found their research material in the sidewalk crusts in front of the MSU’s Colvard Student Union.

“Brown’s techniques are a key part of an emerging trend in computational approaches to biological questions,” Dawe said. “Having expertise like Dr. Brown’s in the biological sciences department means we have the ability to train the next generation of scientists.”

Brown, a native of northern Arkansas, completed his bachelor’s in 2005 and Ph.D. in 2010, both in biology, at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. After a three-year postdoctoral stint in the Centre for Comparative Genomics and Evolutionary Bioinformatics at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, he joined MSU’s faculty in 2013.

Brown is currently a fellow of the Institute for Genomics, Biocomputing and Biotechnology at MSU’s High Performance Computing Collaboratory. He was named the 2018 College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Eminent Scholar, a 2015 College of Arts and Sciences Researcher of the Month and also received a 2015 College of Arts and Sciences Research Award for the Natural and Physical Sciences.

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