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CORAL WEEK: Marjorie Linares on Algae, Anemones and Chromera – Real Scientists

CORAL WEEK: Marjorie Linares on Algae, Anemones and Chromera

Our penultimate CORAL WEEK curator is PhD student Marjorie Linares (@CurlyHairDevil), from Sydney University, Australia. Marjorie grew up in Venezuela, starting off in Computer Engineering before moving to the US to pursue Biology at the University of New Orleans, chasing butterflies in Madagascar and finding pausing for doctoral studies in Sydney, Australia. In addition to her PhD work, Marjorie volunteers for the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy. unnamed-7Here’s Marjorie’s origin story, and it’s a great one filled with wanderlust.


Always loved science. As a kid I read a book about Mother Earth and it stuck with me forever. My school also pushed for a lot of hands on science participation early on and I won a science fair by observing a goldfish behave when I changed the water temperature. In retrospect, I feel horrible about it but it was the 90s in Venezuela and Goldie stuck around as my pet for a while afterwards (hopefully happily). My life has been a bit zig zaggy regarding science. I started off studying Computer Engineering in Venezuela but after 1.5 years I moved to the US and decided to pursue my BSc in Biology at the University of New Orleans. There, I was sitting in a PGEE (Population Genetics, Evolution, Ecology) class- everyone hated it and I loved it! I got in touch with my professor about doing some genetics research and ended up with Dr. Nicky Anthony working on the phylogeography of butterflies from Madagascar. I got to do some exhausting but super fun field work and got to see lemurs in the wild! Imagine the stereotypical biologist running through the forest with a butterfly net. It was EXACTLY like that. Some surprising results sparked in me an interest for symbiosis and infection biology. Later, as I was unsure about what I wanted to do, I moved to Berlin to do an MSc in Molecular Medicine at Charite Medical School. I did my thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology working on small non-coding RNAs in Salmonella. It was a project heavy on molecular genetics and a big departure from my undergraduate work, but this and other work in the institute further fuelled my interest in the mechanisms of host-parasite/symbiont interactions.


I always wanted to be a marine biologist, but my life took a bunch of different directions. Somehow I still managed to become one! I wanted to find a project that had all the elements I loved: symbiosis, evolution, the ocean, and even some medical questions. I also searched for the possibility of using some of the more advanced techniques applied in the medical research field that wouldn’t be normally used in environmental work. I had looked at different cities I wanted to live in and then looked at their universities and microbiology/biology departments. Not the standard way of looking for doctoral programs but, hey, it worked. I found Dr. Dee Carter at University of Sydney and contacted her about an alga one of her PhD students had discovered: Chromera velia. It was isolated from stony corals in the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney Harbour. It was found to be closely related to apicomplexan parasites, like the ones that cause malaria and toxoplasmosis. But its role in the reef was yet unclear and it was not known if it was endosymbiotic (living within the coral host’s cells). We emailed a few times back and forth and had a Skype meeting and it felt like the project ticked all the boxes! So I packed my bags and moved Down Under. I’m currently finishing my thesis and am looking for Post Doc opportunities. I want to stay in marine science and specifically work with protists. This group of unicellular eukaryotes is complex and filled with interesting organisms. Their diversity spans vastly different lifestyles, from free-living to parasitic and everything in between. Their role in the complex network of the reefs and oceans make them increasingly interesting and I feel there is still so much more to discover and Chromera velia is just one small example of what we can find.

Marjorie in the lab

Marjorie in the lab



I am the Chromera velia hunter. I wanted to figure out as much as I could about Chromera’s ecology. What is the extent of association with coral? Is it endosymbiotic like Symbiodinium or parasitic like other apicomplexans? Does it have host specificity? I’ve carried out both old and new school methods to try to answer some of the questions above. Traditional algae isolation methods from early 20th century are still applicable today to find novel strains. If you pair these methods with the new genetic methods you can gain so much information about microbe diversity in the coral reef. Pyrosequencing has been the workhorse for much of the biodiversity work in the oceans and applying it directly to corals, who host such a wide range of organisms (viruses, bacteria, algae, worms, fish), provides a snapshot of the community associated with a coral at any given time. One of my favourite experiments was using the sea anemone, Aiptasia, as a model for corals. They also harbour photosynthetic endosymbionts, behave similarly to coral and, as those of you who own an aquarium can attest, they are hardy pests which can be easily maintained in the lab. I used anemones to test whether Chromera could be endosymbiotic. And as I write this I just realised that my knack for aquatic animal experimentation started early in life (see above).


The recent news hitting us is the mass bleaching event currently underway in the Great Barrier Reef. We can say that the reef has intrinsic value and we must protect it. It is important for tourism industry and it is a heritage site. It is beautiful. All these are valid reasons. I argue that an additional reason is discovery. One example is Chromera velia, a photosynthetic alga that has given us insight that parasites that cause disease on land, could have had their evolutionary origins in coral reef environments. The discovery of Chromera has led to the discovery of other parasite-related lineages around the world. As a bonus, it is readily maintained in the lab and as it shares several pathways with parasites, making Chromera an appropriate candidate as a model for drug testing. If we lose the reef, we lose the potential for discovery of organisms and biological compounds that could have impact on many lives.


I am a volunteer role model for the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy (NASCA) in Sydney. The Athletes as Role Models Tour (ARMtour) heads out to several schools in remote Aboriginal communities in Northern Territory 4 times a year with an arsenal of excellent role models ranging from athletes, musicians, scientists, cooks, and teachers. It is an opportunity to empower Aboriginal youth through education and interaction with healthy, positive role models. I highly recommend to everyone!


I play competitive beach volleyball and rugby. I’ve travelled a fair bit for both of these sports and they are a very nice release from the hauntings of PhD life. They are also a good source of procrastination.


Ideal Day Off? Spending the day at the beach playing volleyball or maybe going for a dive. Basically, being close to the ocean.


Please welcome Marjorie to Real Scientists!


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