The Evolution of a Trinity Professor’s Research

Biology Professor Craig Schneider’s Discoveries Have Real-World Impact

Hartford, Conn., February 1, 2013- Craig Schneider, Charles A. Dana Professor of Biology, discussed the evolution of "DNA Sequencing and Species Recognition" of marine macroalgae in his Faculty Research Committee lecture at Rittenburg Lounge on Thursday.  The professor’s game-changing work has resulted in breakthroughs in the approach of molecular research on the taxonomy of algae, which came to the international forefront in November of 2012, when major media outlets ran a story on a Asian red seaweed species that had invaded the New England coast.  The seaweed was first discovered by Schneider in Atlantic North America back in 2009.

In the 1990s, Schneider and some other taxonomists discovered that, while certain algal species resemble one another in overall appearance, they are not necessarily DNA relatives, and vice versa. These are called cryptic species. This was a crucial discovery that opened doors to new research, while simultaneously revealing that many research mistakes had been made over the years in the study of algal placement on the tree of life.  “Mine included,” said Schneider, adding that "eyes alone" can’t always help distinguish organisms; rather we need to look at their genes.   

DNA sequencing was especially useful for the identification of Heterosiphonia japonica, the red seaweed that Schneider found on a Rhode Island beach coast in 2009.  Schneider was able to identify the species, originally described in Japan, through molecular research of the algae.  The invasive species, which reproduces a-sexually, grows quickly and aggressively and can survive in warm or cold waters. Only a few creatures, such as sea urchins, eat enough of it to limit its spread, and there simply aren't enough sea urchins in the northeastern United States to keep up with this the rapidly growing alga.     

In November, The Boston Globe reported that Schneider spotted the seaweed and didn’t know what it was. Under a microscope, he saw that it appeared to be the same as a seaweed species from Asian waters that had turned up along the European coast in the early 1980s, choking out native wildlife from Scandinavia to Italy. A 100 percent DNA match confirmed his discovery.

Schneider’s research has been largely enhanced by international resource databases, primarily GenBank.  This resource allows Schneider to analyze and compare DNA from various species of algae all over the world, and has, in turn, made his research data available to scientists worldwide.    

Schneider’s findings have resulted in a major grant from the National Science Foundation, which the professor is coordinating with a former student, Christopher E. Lane '99, assistant professor of biology at the University of Rhode Island, who also received an NSF Grant to study algae in Bermuda.  The two have co-authored multiple papers and continue to focus their research on algae from Bermuda, research essential to the long-term environmental health of the islands.  

For more on Schneider’s NSF Grant, visit: http://www.trincoll.edu/NewsEvents/NewsArticles/pages/Craig-Schneider-NSF-Grant.aspx.  

To read the November, 2012 Boston Globe article on the invasive red seaweed, visit: http://www.boston.com/metrodesk/2012/06/27/invasive-seaweed-threatens-environment-along-new-england-coast/I8tcq4e7MajDP8rq5ZJqUP/story.html 

To read a Reuters article on the same subject, visit: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/30/us-usa-maine-seaweed-idUSBRE8AT1AS20121130  

To listen to a podcast from Maine public radio, visit: http://www.mpbn.net/Home/tabid/36/ctl/ViewItem/mid/3478/ItemId/24480/Default.aspx