Algal cell biology
The seas are teeming with a huge diversity of life from the simplest single-celled organisms to complex animals. The many different life forms that we find on the planet had their evolutionary roots in the oceans. Life in the oceans also plays critical roles in the Earth's carbon and nutrient cycles and the regulation of climate. The marine biota also provide a rich resource of models for the study of the evolution of fundamental life processes such as development and physiology as well as responses and adaptation to changes in their external environment. Marine organisms also present a vast untapped resource for biotechnological advances.
Our research addresses mechanisms that underlie fundamental processes in algae, with particular focus on the marine phytoplankton, ranging from elucidating molecular mechanisms operating in single cells to the factors that regulate the dynamics of populations. We work with population biologists and ecosystem modellers to better understanding how the phytoplankton drive ocean processes and respond and adapt to the changes in ocean chemistry that are occurring as a result of human activities on a global scale.
My research is currently funded by a European Research Council Advanced grant, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), EU Horizon 2020 and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
I study algal cells in order to understand fundamental aspects of cell biology, including cellular transport, homeostasis and signalling. This research is providing unexpected insights into the evolution of membrane transport and signalling mechanisms in eukaryote organisms. My research also addresses the cell biology of key marine organisms, such as the calcifying coccolithophores and silicifying diatoms, that are of critical importance in global carbon and nutrient cycling. We adopt a multidisciplinary approach combining comparative physiology, molecular biology and genomic studies to better understand how phytoplankton populations may respond or adapt to changing conditions in the oceans.
The SeaCells Project
SeaCells addresses fundamental questions in phytoplankton biology from cellular to population scales. This research is beginning to provide exciting new information on the mechanisms and evolution of membrane transport, cell signalling and metabolic regulation in phytoplankton species, such as diatoms and coccolithophores, that play important roles in driving biogeochemical cycles. The research builds on a number of recent findings, including the discovery of cell membrane properties that were thought to be typical of animal cells but now must be considered to be of much more ancient origin. The 5-year SeaCells programme, funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant, brings together single cell biophysics, imaging and state of the art molecular biology with in situ studies of natural oceanic phytoplankton populations. A major aim is to gain critical mechanistic understanding at the molecular and single cell level along with information on the microenvironment that surrounds cells. In order to understand how the physiological properties of single cells in the laboratory translate to behaviour of natural populations we will transfer single cell technologies developed in the laboratory to ship-board platforms. Knowledge of cell- to-cell variability will provide insights into the plasticity of populations and their responses to changing ocean conditions.
How and why do coccolithophores calcify?
Coccolithophores are well known for their ability to produce intricate protective scales composed of crystalline calcium carbonate (calcite). Coccoliths are produced inside the cells and are secreted to the cell surface. We are interested in the mechanisms that underlie this incredible biological process, particularly the transport and regulatory mechanisms that bring about coccolith formation. This knowledge is used to develop models of the costs and benefits of calcification that can be scaled from single cells to populations.
A collaborative project led by Dr. Glen Wheeler (MBA) is studying the unexpected finding that certain species of coccolithophores require silicon in order to correctly form their calcite scales. Significantly, those species that do require silicon also possess diatom-like silicon transport genes that are associated with the process of silicification. We wish to understand the evolutionary and ecological implications of this finding. This work has recently been funded by a joint NERC/NSF grant and will involve collaboration with Dr. Alison Taylor (University of North Carolina, Wilmington).
EMBRIC: The European Marine Biological Resource Centre Infrastructure Consortium
EMBRIC is a Horizon 2020 Blue Growth project that brings together European research infrastructures and industry with the objectives of developing chains of services and pipelines for access to biological, analytical and data resources. Our role is to work with European partners to develop protocols and pipelines for biotechnological applications with microalgae.
European Marine Biological Research Infrastructure Cluster to promote the Blue Bioeconomy (EMBRIC)
The Horizon 2020 NFRADEV-4-2014-2015 EMBRIC project is designed to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and innovation from marine Bio-Resources. EMBRIC aims to promote new applications derived from marine organisms in fields such as drug discovery, novel foods and food...
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Abdul Chrachri is a postdoctoral cell physiologist. Abdul works across several projects and provides electrophysiological and microscopical skills. He records the electrical activity of phytoplankton cells using intracellular electrodes and patch clamp approaches. He also uses patch clamp electrophysiology to monitor the acitivity of specific ion channels from coccolithophores and diatoms that have been expressed in mammalian cell lines.
Deirdre McLachalan is a postdoctoral researcher, funded by the Leverhulme Trust with Professor Alistair Hetherington (University of Bristol). Deirdre works on the application of novel imaging approaches to study calcium signalling in diatoms and vascular plants. She uses wide-field, high resolution Mesolens imaging for simultaneous monitoring of the activities of many hundreds of cells to better understand how cells communicate in diatom populations and in multicelular plant tissues.
Brownlee selected publications
- Langer G, Taylor AR, Walker CE, Meyer EM, Ben Joseph O, Gal A, Harper GM, Probert I, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL (2021) Role of silicon in the development of complex crystal shapes in coccolithophores. New Phytologist DOI: 10.1111/nph.17230.
- de Vries, Joost; Monteiro, Fanny; Wheeler, Glen; Poulton, Alex; Godrijan, Jelena; Cerino, Federica; Malinverno, Elisa; Langer, Gerald; Brownlee, Colin. (2021) Haplo-diplontic life cycle expands coccolithophore niche. Biogeosciences 18 (3). 1161-1184. https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-18-1161-2021
- Fort C, Collingridge P, Brownlee C,Wheeler G. (2021) Ca2+ elevations disrupt interactions between intraflagellar transport and the flagella membrane in Chlamydomonas. Journal of Cell Science 134. jcs253492
- Helliwell KE, Harrison EL, Christie-Oleza J, Rees AP, Kleiner FH, Gaikward T, Downe J, Aguilo-Ferretjans MM, Al-Masoowi L, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL (2021) A novel Ca2+ signalling pathway coordinates environmental phosphorous sensing and nitrogen metabolism in marine diatoms. Current Biology 31, 1-12.
- Helliwell KE, Kleiner FH, Hardstaff H, Chrachri A, Gaikward T, Salmon D, Smirnoff N, Wheeler GL, Brownlee C (2021) Spatiotemoral patterns of intracellular Ca2+ signalling govern hypo-osmotic stress resilience in marine diatoms. New Phytologist doi: 10.1111/nph.17162
- Faktorová D, ….Brownlee C et al (2020) Genetic tool development in marine protists: Emerging model organisms for experimental cell biology. Nature Methods. 17, 481-494.
- Helliwell et al., (2020). A novel single-domain Na+-selective voltage-gated channel in photosynthetic eukaryotes. Plant Physiology. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1104/pp.20.00889.
- Meyer EM, Langer G, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL, Taylor AR (2020) Sr in coccoliths of Scyphosphaera apstenii: Partitioning behaviour and role in coccolith morphogenesis. Geochim Cosmochim ACTA 285, 41-54.
- Brownlee C, Langer G, Wheeler GL (2020) Coccolithophore calcification: Changing paradigms in changing oceans. Acta Biomaterialia https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actbio.2020.07.050
- Helliwell, KE, Charchri A, Koester JA, Warham S, Verret F, Taylor AR, Wheeler GL, Brownlee C. (2019) Alternative mechanisms for fast Na+/Ca2+signaling in eukaryotes via a novel class of single-domain voltage-gated channels. Current Biology 29, 1503-1511
- Walker CE, Taylor AR, Langer G, Durak GM, Heath S, Probert I, Tyrrell T, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL. (2018) The requirement for calcification differs between ecologically important coccolithophore species. New Phytologist 220, 147-162.
- Walker CE, Heath S, Salmon DL, Smirnoff N, Langer G, Taylor AR, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL. (2018) An Extracellular Polysaccharide-Rich Organic Layer Contributes to Organization of the Coccosphere in Coccolithophores. Frontiers in Marine Science 5, UNSP 306.
- Chrachri A, Hopkinson BM, Flynn K, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL. (2018) Dynamic changes in carbonate chemistry in the microenvironment around single marine phytoplankton cells. Nature Communications 9, 74 doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02426-y .
- McKeown DA, Stevens K, Peters AF, Bond P, Harper GM, Brownlee C, Brown MT, Schroeder DC.(2017) Phaeoviruses discovered in kelp. ISME Journal 11, 2869-2873 doi: 10.1038/ismej.2017.130
- Durak GM, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL. (2017) The role of the cytoskeleton in biomineralisation in haptophyte algae. Scientific Reports 7, 15409 doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-15562-8
- Edel KH, Marchadier E, Brownlee C, Kudla J, Hetherington AM. (2017) The Evolution of Calcium-Based Signalling in Plants. Current Biology 27, R667-R679 doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.05.020
- Taylor AR, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL. (2016) Coccolithophore calcification: Chalking up progress. Annual Review of Marine Science 9, 283-310.
- Bickerton P, Sello S, Brownlee C, Pittman JK, Wheeler GL. (2016). Spatial and temporal specificity of Ca2+ signalling in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii in response to osmotic stress. New Phytologist 2016. doi: 10.1111/nph.14128.
- Durak GM, Taylor, AR, Walker CE, Probert I, DeVargas C, Audic S, Schroeder DC, Brownlee C, Wheeler GW (2016) A role for diatom-like silicon transporters in coccolithophore calcification. Nature Communications. doi:10.1038/ncoms10543.
- Monteiro FM, Bach LT, Brownlee C, Bown P, Rickaby REM, Poulton AJ, Tyrrell T, Beaufort L, Dutkiewicz S, Gibbs S, Gutowska MA, Lee R, Riebesell U, Young J, Ridgwell A (2016) Why marine phytoplankton calcify. Science Advances 2, e1501822.
- Rickaby REM, Hermoso M, Lee RBY, Rae BD, Heureux AMC, Balestreri C, Chakravarti L, Schroeder DC, Brownlee, C (2016) Environmental carbonate chemistry selects for phenotype of recently isolated strains of Emiliania huxleyi . Deep Sea Research Part II ,127, 28-40
- Brownlee C, Wheeler GL, Taylor AR (2015) Coccolithophore biomineralization: New questions, new answers. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology 46, 11-16.
- Flynn KJ, Clark DR, Mitra A, Fabian H, Hansen PJ, Glibert PM, Wheeler GL, Stoecker DK, Blackford JC, Brownlee C (2015) Ocean acidification with (de)eutrophication will alter future phytoplankton growth and succession. Proceedings of the Royal Society (B) 282, 20142604.
- Krueger-Hadfield SA, Balestreri C, Schroeder J, Highfield A, Helaouet P, Allum J, Moate R, Lohbeck KT, Miller PI, Riebesell U, Reusch TBH, Rickaby REM, Young J , Hallegraeff G, Brownlee C, Schroeder DC (2014) Genotyping an Emiliania huxleyi (prymnesiophyceae) bloom event in the North Sea reveals evidence of asexual reproduction. Biogeosciences 11, 5215-5234
- Brodie J, Williamson CJ, Smale DA, Kamenos NA, Mieszkowska N, Santos R, Cunliffe M, Steinke M, Yesson C, Anderson KM, Asnaghi V, Brownlee C, Burdett HL, Burrows MT, Collins S, Donohue PJC, Harvey B, Foggo A, Noisette F, Nunes J, Ragazzola F, Raven JA, Schmidt DN, Suggett D, Teichberg M, Hall-Spencer JM. (2014) The future of the northeast Atlantic benthic flora in a high CO2 world. Ecology and Evolution 4, 2787-2798
- Read BA et al. (2013) Pan genome of the phytoplankton Emiliania underpins its global distribution. Nature 499, 209-213.
- Collingridge P, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL (2013) Compartmentalized calcium signalling in cilia regulates intraflagellar transport. Current Biology 23, 2311-2318.
- Farnham G, Strittmatter M, Coelho S, Cock JM, Brownlee C (2013) Gene silencing in Fucus embryos: Developmental consequences of RNAi-mediated cytoskeletal disruption. Journal of Phycology 49, 819-829
- Brownlee C (2013) Carnivorous plants: Trapping and digesting all in one. Current Biology 23, R714-R716.
- Johnson VR, Brownlee C, Rickaby REM, Graziano M, Milazzo M, Hall-Spencer JM. (2013) Responses of marine benthic microalgae to elevated CO2. Marine Biology 160, 1813-1824.
- Depledge MH, Harvey AJ, Brownlee C, Frost M, Moore MN, Fleming LE (2013) Changing views of the interactions between the oceans and human health in Europe. Microbial Ecology 65, 852-859.
- Bach LT, Mackinder CM, Schulz KG, Wheeler G, Schroeder DC, Brownlee C, Riebesell U (2013) Dissecting the impact of CO2 and pH on the mechanisms of photosynthesis and calciﬁcation in the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi. New Phytologist 199, 121-134.
- Taylor AR, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL (2012) Proton channels in algae: reasons to be excited. Trends in Plant Science 17, 675-684
- Johnson VR, Russell B, Fabricus K, Brownlee C, Hall-Spencer JM (2012) Temperate and tropical brown macroalgae thrive, despite decalciﬁcation, along natural CO2 gradients. Global Change Biology 18, 2792–2803.
- Flynn KJ, Blackford JC, Baird ME, Raven JA, Clarke DR, Beardall J, Brownlee C, Wheeler GL (2012) Changes in pH at the exterior surface of plankton with ocean acidification. Nature Climate Change 2, 510-513.
- Laohavisit A, Shang Z, Rubio L, Cuin TA, Véry A-A, Wang A, Mortimer JC, Macpherson N, Coxon KM, Battey NH, Brownlee C, Park OK, Sentenac H, Shabala S, Webb AAR, Davies JM (2012) Arabidopsis Annexin1 Mediates the Radical-Activated Plasma Membrane Ca2+- and K+-Permeable Conductance in Root Cells. Plant Cell 24, 1522-1533.
- McLachlan DH, Underwood GJC, Taylor AR, Brownlee C (2012) Calcium release from intracellular stores is necessary for the photophobic response in the benthic diatom Navicula perminuta (Bacilariophyceae). Journal of Phycology 48, 675-681.
- Mackinder L, Wheeler G, Schroeder D, von Dassow P, Riebesell U, Brownlee C (2011) Expression of biomineralisation related ion transport genes in Emiliania huxleyi . Enivronmental Microbiology 13, 3250-3265.
- Taylor AR, Chrachri A, Wheeler GL, Goddard H, Brownlee C (2011) A voltage-gated proton channel underlying pH homeostasis in calcifying coccolithophores. PLoS Biology 9(6): e1001085.
- Cock JM, et al, (2010) The Ectocarpus genome and the independent evolution of multicellularity in the brown algae. Nature 465, 617-621
- Mackinder L, Wheeler, GL, Schroeder DC, Riebesell U, Brownlee C. (2010) Molecular mechanisms underlying calcification in coccolithophores. Geomicrobiology Journal 27, 585-595.
- Cock JM, Coelho SM, Brownlee C, Taylor AR (2010) The Ectocarpus genome sequence: insights into brown algal biology and the evolutionary diversity of the eukaryotes. New Phytologist 188, 1-4.
- Mac Raighne A, Brownlee C, Gebert U, Maneuski D, Milnes J, O’Shea V, Ruegheimer TK. (2010) Imaging visible light with Medipix 2. Review of Scientific Instruments 81, 113103.
- Verret FJ, Wheeler GL, Taylor AR, Farnham G, Brownlee C (2010) Calcium channels and their implications for evolution of calcium signalling in photosynthetic eukaryotes. New Phytologist (Tansley Review) 187, 23-43.
- Bentov S., Brownlee C, Erez J (2009) The role of seawater endocytosis in the biomineralization process in calcareous foraminifera. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 51, 21500-21504.
Senior Research Fellow, Marine Biological Association
Chair of Marine Biosciences, School of Ocean and Earth Sciences, University of Southampton.
The Laboratory, Citadel Hill
Plymouth PL1 2PB
M: +44 7917 845471
T: +44 1752 426585 or 426274