Dr Sally Warring tells us that studying protists could make us rethink what we know about biology, genetics, and the complexities of life on Earth.
(This article was originally posted on the Earlham Institute website on August 23rd 2020 and is reposted here with the generous permission of Sally Warring and Peter Bickerton)
Dr Sally Warring’s first few months at Earlham Institute have been a little out of the ordinary – especially after arriving in the UK from New York in the midst of an accelerating global pandemic. But for someone who studies an unusual group of organisms called protists, extraordinary is the norm.
As a postdoc in the Neil Hall Group, Dr Warring will be working on the Darwin Tree of Life project to sequence the DNA of every eukaryotic species in the British Isles. Had coronavirus not intervened, Warring would have spent the summer months traversing the country in search of novel protists – the mostly single-celled, mostly microscopic, always fascinatingly diverse creatures that science, so far, has paid scant attention to in comparison to plants and animals.
“Protists are awesome,” Warring enthuses while bubbling up a broth of nutritious wheat bran – the preferred diet of some ciliates she is culturing for an experiment. “They make up the vast majority of eukaryotic diversity, yet we have relatively few described species and even fewer genomes available.”
Indeed, from the little that is already known about them, it’s clear that protists are unfairly grouped together under one title, when really they comprise vast, interlinked branches of the tree of life that dwarf the small twigs of plants, animals and fungi.
“Protists do so many different things,” explains Warring. “Some of them have really complex behaviours. They hunt, they mate, they build structures, they can live in complex communities and colonies. They provide lots in every ecosystem. They’re major primary producers, they’re degraders. Some of them are symbionts in many different ways.
“And there are millions of [species of] them – a small cup of sea water would have many and most would be undescribed. We also don’t know many of them very well. They probably do weird and wonderful things – odd ways of arranging their genomes, or doing just about anything. There’s so much diversity, we don’t know much about that diversity, and it’s all related, really, to our understanding of the evolution of life.”