The Coral Symbiomics Lab
Red Sea Research Center
Division of Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering

People

Jit Ern Chen

Postdoctoral Fellows

Introduction

​I studied plant sciences as an undergraduate in the University of Cambridge in the UK with every intention of working in the field of transgenic crop plants. However, a series of events catalyzed by concerns over peak oil production in the mid 2000’s led me to work on a PhD in the Department of Plant Science, University of Cambridge where I isolated and characterized several enzymes that catalyzed the production of storage lipids in the diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum, with the overarching aim of increasing the production of algal lipids for use as biofuel feedstock. By the end of my PhD in 2013, it was becoming clear that hydraulic fracturing had won the race to provide the answer to the problem of falling global hydrocarbon production, but not to the issue of carbon emissions. Hence, I decided that the next best thing for me to work on in the field of algal molecular biology was to work on the genetic transformation of the dinoflagellate Symbiodinium microadriaticum, the photosynthetic symbiont of corals.

The coral-symbiodinium symbiotic interaction is the bedrock of the entire warm-water coral reef ecosystem. The primary production of in hospite Symbiodinium living inside coral cells powers the construction of coral calcium carbonate exoskeletal structures that are the distinctive features of coral reefs. Unfortunately, this symbiotic interaction is highly susceptible to disruption due to external environmental stresses, such as from increasing water temperatures. The collapse of this interaction leads to the expulsion or destruction of Symbiodinium in corals, which can be observed visually as the characteristic bleaching and subsequent death of coral colonies. With carbon emissions still raising globally and ocean surface temperatures reaching record highs every year, elucidating the molecular mechanism by which the relatively thermo-tolerant Red Sea corals are able to withstand higher temperatures compared to their relatives in cooler climates could lead to a better understanding of how increased thermo-tolerance can further evolve and whether we can do anything to speed up this process in the face of climate change-driven increases in ocean temperature.

In-depth studies on the molecular mechanism of this symbiotic interaction and its breakdown have been hampered by the lack of direct molecular techniques to knock-out of overexpress target genes of interest. I have thus been working in the Aranda lab since 2014 to determine if and how Symbiodinium can be transformed with heterologous DNA constructs with the goal of developing a method to manipulate the expression of genes of interest that could be involved in symbiosis and symbiotic thermo-tolerance.

Research Interests

​I am primarily interested in the study and development of molecular techniques to characterize and transform various genes in higher plants and algae, as well as other unicellular eukaryotes. My aim is to be able to genetically transform lesser-studied algae in order to identify the role of lineage-specific genes that may not exist or have different functions in model algal species such as the chlorophyte Chlamydomonas reinhardtii or the diatom P. tricornutum. In relation to this, I am also interested in molecular phylogenetic methods to map out the relationship between various algal groups, especially at the level of specific orthologous genes.

Selected Publications

  • ​Jit Ern Chen and Alison G Smith (2012). “A look at diacylglycerol acyltransferases (DGATs) in algae”. J Biotechnol 162(1):28-39.
  • Naomi J Brown, Christine A Newell, Susan Stanley, Jit E Chen, Abigail J Perrin, Kaisa Kajala, Julian M Hibberd (2011). “Independent and parallel recruitment of preexisting mechanisms underlying C4 photosynthesis”. Science, 331, Issue 6023, 1436-1439.

Education

  • Ph.D. (​2009–2013) Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. The identification and characterisation of diacylglycerol acyltransferases (DGATs) in microalgae.
  • M.A. (2012) Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  • B.A. (2006–2009) Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. First Class Honours in Natural Sciences (Biological).