The World in a Cell

You might think a single-cell organism would be ridiculously simple, right? Guess again.

 

It turns out a creature composed of just one cell can be astonishingly complex, with the potential to hold clues about everything from red tides to human disease. Consider a dinoflagellate—an organism responsible for red tides. Though composed of just a single cell, a dinoflagellate may have 150 billion base pairs of DNA. People like you and me? We’ve got just one-fiftieth of that—even though we’re composed of trillions of cells.

Weird, but true.

Welcome to the world of single-cell genomics—and to the domain of Debashish Bhattacharya, a Rutgers professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources and the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

GENOMICS EXPLAINED

Bhattacharya exudes enthusiasm for the fast-paced world of genomics, and he’s clearly a scientist comfortable explaining the meaning of his work—and its significance—to those beyond the confines of his lab.

“Everything in your physical self,” he explains, “is the result of genes that are encoded in every cell of your body. Genomics is the science of determining that information and then decoding how the genetic information and the environment interact to turn into real things, like how you look and act. These same rules apply to single-celled microbes and their genomes.”

PIONEER IN FIELD

Debashish BhattacharyaBhattacharya is a pioneer in an area of genomics examining single-cell organisms found in nature—and, in particular, in the ocean. At Rutgers, he has been able to build his own genome center, where researchers have the computing power and scientific equipment to proceed from an idea to the wet lab, to genome analysis, and then to scientific discoveries and papers published in leading scientific journals.

“That’s unleashed a lot of creativity,” says Bhattacharya, “and it’s led to a real boom in our research because we’re able to control the process from idea to paper.”

UNDERGRADS WELCOME

The research conducted at his lab isn’t just for graduate students and postdocs. “We’re interested in undergrads from any background,” says Bhattacharya, “and we have funding to support them.” Because his lab has several National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, student researchers can be funded through the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Interested students should contact Bhattacharya.

Undergraduates working in the lab can be involved in a variety of tasks:

• preparing reagents
• creating DNA libraries
• preparing DNA and RNA for genome analysis
• analyzing genome data
• writing computer programs (or “scripts”) for genome analysis

“It depends on the strengths and interests of the student,” says Bhattacharya.

CAREER BENEFITS FOR STUDENTS

These skills have value for the science produced, but also because genomics experience is valued by industry. One researcher with an undergraduate degree in biology worked in the lab for two years, then left to work at a New York City genome center—and significantly increased his salary. “When you work in genome sequencing and bioinformatics, these are two very, very hot fields,” says Bhattacharya.