Planktonic ciliates are key members of marine food webs where they serve diverse roles, including as food chain links between smaller microbes and larger plankton. Due to their small size and difficulties in identifying and cultivating them, we know less about ciliate diversity and distributions in the ocean than we do about larger organisms such as fish and invertebrates. Previous work from this team measured ciliate diversity in coastal waters and found that distinct genetic variants were separated in time and space in a way that could be related to factors such as ocean temperature, salinity, and depth gradients. Many questions remained unanswered, and it is important to understand the environmental factors that control the diversity and distribution of plankton such as ciliates to predict how these organisms may respond to a changing enviroment in the coming decades. This project focuses on: 1) how ciliate species are delineated using single-cell genomics and transcriptomics; 2) DNA-based studies of all ciliates and other planktonic members of the SAR clade (Stramenopila, Alveolata, Rhizaria), which will provide ecological context; 3) in situ gene expression by single-cell and meta- transcriptomics; and 4) laboratory studies of gene expression in cultivated ciliate species. This project involves training of postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates. The researchers are committed to creating diverse and inclusive research labs; recruitment of participants will be done through partnership with appropriate groups on our campuses. The project integrates with summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) activities at both Smith College and UCONN (including the UCONN/Mystic Aquarium joint REU), which are especially focused on underrepresented students. This project also enhances efforts to broaden understanding of biodiversity in partnership with the UCONN Noyce Scholars Program, which facilitates career-changing STEM professionals to become teachers in underserved secondary schools.

This project will assess distributions of reproductively-isolated species, determined using a new method to characterize regions of the ciliate germline genome. Furthermore, it will use phylogenomic methods to identify clade-specific transcripts (e.g. those of spirotrich ciliates) within metatranscriptomes from the shelf environment and to expand knowledge of ciliate function with single-cell transcriptomics of field-collected cells. These approaches will be a substantial improvement over the culture-based methods that are potentially biased towards "weedy" species in the ocean. The combination of definitive species identification with assessment of function via single-cell and meta- transcriptomics promises to provide significant advances in marine plankton ecology. The research focuses on two broad questions: 1) does the observed high diversity in phylogenetically-informative genes reflect reproductive isolation and functional differentiation in planktonic ciliates? and 2) do different co-occurring species of planktonic ciliates show substantial functional differences that correspond to different niches in the ocean? The project assesses species boundaries (i.e. reproductive isolation) through analyses of patterns in the germline micronuclei of planktonic ciliate morphospecies; characterizes transitions of closely-related ciliates across ecological gradients in the ocean; and examines functional differences within and between species, and in communities, through analyses of transcriptomics.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Michael Sieracki
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Smith College
United States
Zip Code