International research group led by UMass scientist sequences genome of ubiquitous microbe

October 01, 2000

AMHERST, Mass. - A team of scientists at the University of Massachusetts led by microbial genetics professor Shiladitya DasSarma, in collaboration with noted molecular biotechnologist Leroy Hood of the Institute of Systems Biology (ISB), Seattle, Wash., has completed the genome sequence of Halobacterium species NRC-1, an "extremophilic" microorganism that grows best in an environment 10 times saltier than sea water. The achievement will be published in the Oct. 3 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

DasSarma and Hood led a consortium of researchers from 12 universities and research centers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., on the three-year, $1.2-million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Hood may be best known as the creator of DNA sequencing technology. Forty-three researchers, including the team leaders, participated in producing the manuscript outlining their findings. Wailap Victor Ng, a UMass alumnus currently on the faculty of ISB, was first author of the manuscript.

"Genome studies on Halobacterium should contribute toward some of the greatest unsolved mysteries of biology today, including our understanding of evolution as well as of the fundamental life process in higher cells," says DasSarma. "There is a tremendous genetic resource in the genomes of microorganisms. In fact, it is one of the last, largely untapped, natural resources on our planet."

Halobacterium NRC-1 is a member of the archaea, the third branch of life in the biological world. Archaea are evolutionary relics, microorganisms that are among the most ancient forms of life, yet they represent a third of all living creatures. Astronomical numbers of Halobacterium - which are microscopic, rod-shaped organisms - can be found in bodies of very salty water, including the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea. The single-celled organisms utilize sunlight to synthesize energy, giving off a red byproduct, and it has been harvested for commercial use for its light-sensitive properties. When a body of water turns bright pink or red, it is often a sign that millions of halobacteria are present. These microorganisms, and their red pigment, can remain in salt crystals left behind long after a lake dries up.

"The Halobacterium genome is one of the first and only genetically tractable archaea to be sequenced. As such, it represents the key to both unlocking the scientific mysteries of archaea and opening avenues of practical use of our natural genetic resources," says DasSarma.

According to DasSarma, this particular genome will serve as an excellent model for all organisms in the archaeon. "Some aspects of the biology of Halobacterium resemble higher cells called eukaryotes, especially the means by which cells turn genes on or off. An understanding of this genome will help us learn how cells regulate genes. We have not observed such a sophisticated regulatory network in such a primitive organism before."

DasSarma says that a handful of organisms in the archaea have been sequenced before, but this is the first halophile, or salt-loving organism. Because they can live under extreme conditions, Halobacterium are easy to culture. And, because they are completely harmless to humans, the study of this genome can be useful for teaching biological principles in colleges and schools, according to the UMass microbiologist.

DasSarma adds: "These tiny creatures will provide many insights into how more complex creatures manage life functions, including cell division, and the way cells transport proteins across biological membranes. Right now, several biomedical applications using Halobacterium are being investigated, including the development of orally administered vaccines, and the design of new antibiotics."

NSF program director Joanne Tornow says the foundation's goal is to catalyze the development of similar genomic research. "Genomic projects have produced a great deal of data, but we're just getting to the point where we can find answers to a lot of the most interesting biology questions," she said. "Every day, we learn more about functional, comparative, and structural genomics. This data will allow us to ask questions we couldn't ask before."
The substance of this release is under embargo until Mon., Oct. 2, 5 p.m. EDT. For an advance copy of the Oct. 3 PNAS, call 202/334-2138, or email Shiladitya DasSarma can be reached at or 413/545-2581. For more information on the study, see

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Related Genome Articles from Brightsurf:

Genome evolution goes digital
Dr. Alan Herbert from InsideOutBio describes ground-breaking research in a paper published online by Royal Society Open Science.

Breakthrough in genome visualization
Kadir Dede and Dr. Enno Ohlebusch at Ulm University in Germany have devised a method for constructing pan-genome subgraphs at different granularities without having to wait hours and days on end for the software to process the entire genome.

Sturgeon genome sequenced
Sturgeons lived on earth already 300 million years ago and yet their external appearance seems to have undergone very little change.

A sea monster's genome
The giant squid is an elusive giant, but its secrets are about to be revealed.

Deciphering the walnut genome
New research could provide a major boost to the state's growing $1.6 billion walnut industry by making it easier to breed walnut trees better equipped to combat the soil-borne pathogens that now plague many of California's 4,800 growers.

Illuminating the genome
Development of a new molecular visualisation method, RNA-guided endonuclease -- in situ labelling (RGEN-ISL) for the CRISPR/Cas9-mediated labelling of genomic sequences in nuclei and chromosomes.

A genome under influence
References form the basis of our comprehension of the world: they enable us to measure the height of our children or the efficiency of a drug.

How a virus destabilizes the genome
New insights into how Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV) induces genome instability and promotes cell proliferation could lead to the development of novel antiviral therapies for KSHV-associated cancers, according to a study published Sept.

Better genome editing
Reich Group researchers develop a more efficient and precise method of in-cell genome editing.

Unlocking the genome
A team led by Prof. Stein Aerts (VIB-KU Leuven) uncovers how access to relevant DNA regions is orchestrated in epithelial cells.

Read More: Genome News and Genome Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to