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Senjie Lin Explores Potential Hidden Answers in Tiny Dinoflagellates to Combat Climate Change

Photo of a man in a lab
Senjie Lin, Ph.D. Credit: Minglei Ma and Xiaomei Wu.

One of the most daunting and urgent problems we face today is climate change, which is impacting everything on our planet, including weather, water, agriculture, ecosystems, and the health and well-being of humans and wildlife.

Scientists are spearheading efforts to find solutions to these emerging catastrophes, and one such hardworking and devoted researcher is Senjie Lin, Ph.D., a professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut. Lin, who was named a AAAS Fellow in 2020, works with dinoflagellates, which are tiny marine organisms that can be found mainly in oceans, but are also present in freshwater ecosystems such as ponds, lakes and rivers.

I study phytoplankton — tiny organisms, most of which are photosynthetic organisms in the ocean — which are the base of the marine ecosystem,” explains Lin. “There are many different species of phytoplankton. For the last 20 years or so, I have been focusing on a group of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates.” Lin is researching the genetic mechanics of how these organisms operate as well as the ecology of these organisms to try to understand how they interact with the environment and with other organisms.

These organisms are, according to Lin, complex, weird and enigmatic. “They break a lot of rules,” he notes. “They shut off some genes of themselves and steal genes from other organisms, and they do not have the kind of structure and DNA that other organisms have.” According to Lin, these tiny single-cell organisms are anything but simple. “They have huge genomes,” he states. “The amount of DNA they contain — the smallest set is about half of humans and the biggest is close to 90 times as large.”

Dinoflagellates can be both good and bad actors. They can prey on other organisms and eat them, and are the greatest contributors to harmful algal blooms such as red tides. “Most of the red tides are caused by dinoflagellates,” he says. “And that can be very devastating to the environment and local economy, and pose threats to human health because of seafood contamination from toxins produced by these organisms.”

On the other hand, they, like other phytoplankton, can help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when they photosynthesize. Some subgroups of dinoflagellates are essential symbionts of corals and other invertebrates. “Coral reefs all rely on symbiosis with dinoflagellates,” explains Lin. “Without this symbiosis, corals cannot grow. Global warming has led to coral bleaching and degradation, which happen because this symbiosis is disrupted.”

Many species of dinoflagellates are also bioluminescent, meaning they emit light. The beautiful glow they create in the water can be like something out of a fairytale, he notes. “Some people say it’s like a ghost or spirit. Some of them are so beautiful — they look like they have armors of old-time soldiers, and some of them look like ship anchors.”

Their battle-ready look may be particularly fitting considering the fact that researchers like Lin are investigating these organisms in search of clues that may one day lead to answers that could help combat the effects of climate change.

Lin has been looking into questions such as how dinoflagellates can live in diverse environments, how harmful algal blooms become so abundant and how they became such important contributors to coral reefs. “I really want to know how their DNA enable them to do things and how the interaction between the organisms, between their DNA and the environment, allow them to do the things they do,” says Lin.

By learning how they compete with other organisms and form harmful algal blooms or how they maintain symbiotic relations to corals, scientists may be able to perhaps inform policy and management strategies to help protect the environment. For instance, we may one day be able to take this research and optimize wastewater treatment and control the release of chemical compounds into the water so that they won’t form harmful algal blooms so frequently. Or, we may find a robust species of corals with stronger symbionts, or even use genetic engineering like CRISPR/Cas9 technology to restore damaged coral reefs.

Lin’s passion for his work stems not only from his desire to help find solutions for climate change, but also comes from a drive shared by many scientists and explorers: to find answers to challenging questions. The fact that dinoflagellates are so complex and that so little is known about them is a key reason why he found himself drawn to them. “They are somehow more difficult to study than other phytoplankton, which leaves a lot of unexplored areas for me to jump in,” he explains.

Lin hopes that his research and that of other fellow scientists can contribute to the solutions we need to face today’s challenges. “I really hope that the world recognizes it takes collaborative effort to solve problems,” notes Lin. “And this applies to research on dinoflagellates.”

He’s glad to see that there are now researchers around the world who are tackling dinoflagellate genomes and biology and looks forward to working with them to address issues such as coral degradation. “That’s my ultimate goal — I think that as scientists, our work can help the world and humankind,” he says.