The Gachon Collection

Inspired by research on algae/pathogen interactions. The warfare between the brown marine algae Ectocarpus and the beautiful oomycete pathogen Eurychasma is the inspiration for this edgy and sophisticated collection

 

This is our first collection. We collaborated with Dr Claire Gachon from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and learned about her scientific discoveries. Our founder, Jessica Giannotti took this information, including unseen and breathtaking microscopy images as inspiration to design the collection. Claire’s cutting-edge research with special focus on the Ectocarpus/Eurychasma model is shedding some light on how these interactions impact marine ecosystems.

 

The Science

Algae, or seaweed, play a vital role in marine ecology, providing shelter and food for marine life, think kelp forests, and also in human life, both as a source of food and animal feed. Seaweed is currently being cultivated on a test site off the Isle of Kerrera, Scotland for a multitude of uses including food, fertiliser and cosmetics. We are yet to identify how cultivated seaweed will interact with native populations. Therefore, understanding algae – what makes them thrive and what makes them vulnerable to disease-causing pathogens and parasites – are an increasingly important area of scientific research.

Many varieties of brown algae thrive in cold, tidal environments, which are in plentiful supply in Scottish waters. One alga called Ectocarpus, a tiny brown seaweed, is known to sailors for sticking to hulls and slowing boats down, but is proving successful in the seaweed aquaculture industry as a potential animal feed source.  It has been well studied scientifically as part of developing fouling prevention methods and its genome has been fully sequenced.  Eurychasma, a pathogen, is less well-studied but equally important. It is a fungal-like organism called an oomycete that can infect virtually every kind of brown algae and is widespread in coastal environments.

With sophisticated microscopy techniques, we are able to watch the warfare between algal cells and attacking pathogens. The battle begins with a Eurychasma spore injecting material directly into a cell of the algae, and as the cell fills with the pathogen, it swells. This is known as a sporangium, which then breaks off and begins releasing many new spores, called zoospores or swarmers that will go on to kill further algal cells. However, this doesn’t always happen. Some algae successfully resist Eurychasma infection by simply letting the infected cell die, preventing new spores from growing and stopping the cycle.

To understand why this happens, Dr Claire Gachon from SAMS looked closely at the Ectocarpus genome and identified potential pathogen receptors that could play a part. At this point her research took a somewhat unexpected but interesting turn. The receptors she studied had similar traits of pathogen recognition systems in plants and animals. It was previously thought that most algae possess an innate immune system that’s unable to adapt to new threats.  However, Claire now theorises that this particular brown algae may instead have a highly dynamic immune system more like our own.  She thinks algae like Ectocarpus may be able to learn from their interaction with enemies like Eurychasma, develop successful immune responses, and survive. This may be a rare window into how our own immune systems evolved.

As human population increases, more of us will rely on algae for food directly, and indirectly via animal feed. Claire’s regular interactions with environmental agencies and the growing aquaculture industry keep her work in the lab intrinsically tied to the world we live in.

Visit Dr Claire’s profile page at SAMS and seaweed cultivation site for more information.

The development of the collection was kindly supported by NERC

NERC – the Natural Environment Research Council – is the leading funder of independent research, training and innovation in environmental science in the UK. We invest public money in world-leading science, designed to help us sustain and benefit from our natural resources, predict and respond to natural hazards and understand environmental change. We work closely with policymakers and industry to make sure our knowledge can support sustainable economic growth and wellbeing in the UK and around the world. We are supported mainly by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), but our activities and funding decisions are independent of government.

The Scientist

“I see being a scientist like being an artist”

Dr Claire Gachon

Dr Claire Gachon is a phycologist, an expert in seaweed.

She sees being a scientist a little bit like being an artist. It begins with acquiring skills and a rigorous practice, but the creativity comes from exploring unknown areas – and trying to do things no one has ever done before.
Claire started out as a plant scientist in France, where she grew up. Studying the tobacco plant in Paris and Strasbourg, she began learning the tools and techniques that she uses today. She calls that time her ‘green phase’.

A love affair took her from France to the west coast of Scotland, where she switched her focus to seaweed, in particular, brown algae and the diseases that affect them. She won a prestigious 2-year fellowship and the ‘brown phase’ had begun.

Now a lecturer at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), Claire’s mixed background in biochemistry, molecular biology and genomics helps her do the kind of interdisciplinary work that’s at the vanguard of science research. It’s also where most of the creativity happens for her.

Claire says much is still unknown in the field of algae research and room for discovery is as big as the ocean. She now has a dynamic team of collaborators and together they’ve made discoveries that she could never have dreamt of. Her own work is expanding beyond algal host-pathogen interactions and she’s finding practical applications for her research. In fact, Claire thinks she’s entered a new phase – not green, or brown, but rainbow.

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