Posts in category Microbial & Environmental Genomics

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Science on the Sea Ice Edge

On Sunday, December 14th JCVI scientists Andy Allen, Erin Bertrand, and Jeff Hoffman flew to New Zealand to begin the arduous journey to the sea ice edge of Antarctica.  The JCVI team was joined by three members of the University of Southern California, led by David Hutchins, and three members of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), led by Deborah Bronk.  This is the second field season of the second three-year NSF funded collaborative project for the Allen team.  The first field season for the current project was in December 2012/January 2013; the second year was postponed due to the government shutdown in late 2013 delaying our trip until December 2014.  The major objectives of this collective fieldwork are to understand how changes in micronutrient availability, temperature, and pCO2 will impact growth, community composition, and nutrient utilization in Southern Ocean phytoplankton.


JCVI Antarctic Expedition
JCVI Antarctic ExpeditionPictures from Antarctic Expedition

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean remain one of the most untouched regions on the planet making this area extremely valuable for research related to the impacts of climate change on biota. The Southern Ocean is a system of currents linking all of the Earth’s ocean.  It is the most prolific of our oceans, and by conducting genome-enabled investigations targeting phytoplankton, plant like organisms consisting mostly of algae and bacteria that are the base of oceanic food webs, JCVI scientists glean insight into key biological underpinnings.  A key research challenge is identification of basic characteristics, features and genomic fingerprints that are sensitive to environmental shifts that impact surface waters and result in   nutrient cascading effects.  JCVI scientists are establishing valuable baselines to identify impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems.  This research is used in turn to create models of ocean circulation and phytoplankton distribution patterns that will help scientists, policy makers and politicians identify and address the worldwide effects of climate change.

This research can be especially challenging because of the geographic isolation of the Southern Ocean.  Upon arrival in New Zealand, the JCVI team spends a day securing extreme cold weather gear and viewing safety videos.  We then wait patiently to depart on a military plane: LC-130 Hercules.  While the LC-130 is known for its reliability to reach austere locations, the flight is often at the mercy of mechanical failure and weather changes.  After a nine hour, extremely loud and rumbling flight, the team disembarks onto a sheet of ice.  Despite this being a repeat trip for many of us, it is still amazing to find yourself traversing a remote sheet of ice.  From here, we board the transport vehicle Ivan the Terra Bus for the 45-minute ride to McMurdo Station on Ross Island.

Orientation to station life can be challenging. There are acronyms for everything.  Despite the presence of approximately 1000 residents, one is aware of the lack of “home like” sounds from pets and children, and the feelings of isolation are real and enduring.  Interestingly less than 10% of the Station population is scientists.  We work with military and station support staff daily, and despite the isolation, a sense of camaraderie and a bond based on shared experience develops immediately.  Another note of interest is that the weather at times is not that bad at McMurdo despite what you may have seen in the movies.  In fact, our friends and family in Boston had it much worse!

After arriving at McMurdo, the team spent 9 days completing required safety training, securing logistical support and preparing the lab.  Our research activities consisted of weekly helicopter expeditions to the sea ice edge where large volumes of water were filtered for analyses of DNA, RNA and proteins.  Live phytoplankton samples were also collected in a manner specifically designed to prevent contamination by iron and other trace metals. There are inherent dangers traveling to the sea ice edge.  In the company of penguins and whales, the team must be aware of potential ice shifts, developing cracks and breakouts.  We travel with a mountaineer who works to maintain our safety.  When working close to the ice edge, we are each secured via ropes and pulleys—it can be intense.  We also have to watch the weather.  Many times in order to keep samples from freezing, you could see us breaking out the hairdryers and camping stoves.  Whatever it takes!

Our “live water” samples were transported back to the laboratory at McMurdo and used to conduct various manipulative experiments aimed at investigating the synergistic impact of change in Iron (Fe) and Vitamin B12 availability as well as increases in temperature and pCO2 levels.  One of the major challenges the team faced was keeping these experiments free of dust in order to avoid iron contamination.  This was a particular challenge because McMurdo Station is built on a pile of extremely dry, dusty, volcanic soil.  The team persevered, of course, and completed numerous trace metal clean experiments.

To date, these manipulative experiments have yielded preliminary results suggesting that changing micronutrient availability and increasing temperature will have major impacts on the base of the Antarctic food web.  These include changes in mutualistic relationships between phytoplankton and bacteria and changes in the rate of consumption in major nutrients, both of which are likely to have important downstream effects throughout the global ocean. Analyses of gene and protein expression changes in the field and in these experiments are just beginning to yield further insight into how the Southern Ocean will respond to a changing earth.

On January 27th, exhausted, but with a very successful expedition completed, the team returned to New Zealand.  It is challenging to be away from your friends and family for 2 months at time.  As we return to the real world though, we arrive feeling lucky and privileged.  JCVI scientists see a region of the world and experience amazing days of wildlife that few people will ever know first-hand.  Studying phytoplankton and ocean ecosystems is in fact a privilege and the research JCVI scientists and other teams are doing in Antarctica will have a lasting impact on the future of our planet.

2015 Advanced Genomics, Metagenomics, and Bioinformatics Workshop Wrap-up

I was lucky enough to help set up and plan a workshop covering genomics, metagenomics, proteomics and bioinformatics at the University of the West Indies campus in St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago on February 19th and 20th. The workshop was sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through the Genomic Center for Infectious Diseases cooperative agreement. UWI was a co-sponsor and a gracious host. Participants included 60 individuals from Trinidad, England, Guyana and Barbados. On-line participants were from all over the world including Gambia, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, USA, and the Caribbean.

file-pdf Workshop Slides (PDF – 29MB)

The team of presenters from the JCVI included Karen Nelson, Bill Nierman, Andrey Tovchigrechko, Rembert Pieper, and Shibu Yooseph.  Presenters from UWI included Drs. Christine Carrington and Adesh Ramsubhag.

Karen opened the workshop with a welcome message and overview. She has been a driving force behind the growing relationship between UWI and JCVI. Bill delivered very interesting talks on the history of research on the human microbiome and currently emerging infectious diseases. Rembert handled a presentation and tutorial on proteomic analysis strategies, which was a big hit. If time was not a factor, the question and answer period could have lasted longer than his talk. Finally, Andrey and Shibu presented and gave lessons on statistics, UNIX, and bioinformatics analyses for genomics, metagenomics, and microbiome work.

Dr. Carrington’s presentation on infectious diseases in Trinidad focused on Dengue Fever and Chickungunya, and dovetailed quite nicely with Bill’s presentation on emerging infectious diseases.

Dr. Ramsubhag described the results of his work examining the bacterial diversity of the Nariva Swamp in Trinidad, which uncovered many unique bacterial strains. Perhaps the most important portion of his talk described how important this type of workshop/collaboration is for UWI. Lessons from subject matter experts are invaluable to the undergraduate, graduate and faculty members that attended the workshop as students. In addition, Dr. Ramsuhbag described how a relationship that started through a workshop has given UWI access to cutting edge technologies and data analysis strategies that would be otherwise unavailable without the collaboration with the JCVI.

The students that attended the workshop were all very enthusiastic and eager to learn. They seemingly hung on every word from the presenters, and paid very close attention during the presentations and hands on informatics sessions. A few attendees even asked us to make the lunch break shorter so that the workshop time could be lengthened…but we needed that time to break down the video equipment, haul it to another building and set it up for the afternoon classes. It was a pleasure to help make this learning experience possible for the workshop students!

The workshop was the second time that staff from the JCVI have presented at the St. Augustine Campus of UWI. Tim Stockwell held an 8 hour workshop focused on viruses in 2013.  We look forward to working together in the future.

Special thanks to Tim Stayeas for handling all of the technology associated with on-line broadcasts of the meeting.

Watch all four training sessions below:

Day 1, AM Session

Day 1, PM Session

Day 2, AM Session

Day 2, PM Session

International Bioinformatics Workshop

20th International Bioinformatics Workshop on Virus Evolution & Molecular Epidemiology (VEME) on behalf of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology

The International Bioinformatics Workshop on VEME workshop is recognized as one of the best virus bioinformatics courses in the world and has so far been organized in Belgium, Brazil, Finland, Greece, Portugal, the USA, South Africa, The Netherlands, Serbia and Italy. The 20th edition will be held 9 – 14 August 2015 at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad and Tobago. The workshop is co-organized by the UWI, J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and the University of Leuven.

The workshop will provide intensive training in the mathematical principles and computer applications used in the study virus evolution and for conducting detailed molecular epidemiological investigations. The workshop will include lectures and computer practical session where students will have the opportunity to analyze their own research data. Teachers will include 24 world-renowned researchers (including Richard Scheuermann, Tim Stockwell and Karen E. Nelson from JCVI).

Note: the application deadline has been extended to March 29, 2015.

Detailed information and online applications may be accessed at:


Guest Speakers Marlo Gottfurcht Longstreet and Dean Ornish Inspire Guests at JCVI‘s “Life at the Speed of Light” Gala

On October 18, J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) hosted our “Life at the Speed of Light” black tie gala featuring special guests Dean Ornish, MD, and Marlo Gottfurcht Longstreet. JCVI welcomed 200 community leaders, sponsors and supporters including Representative Scott Peters, Susan Taylor, Reena Horowitz, Linda Chester, Jack McGrory, Jessie Knight, Jr., Joye Blount, Wendy Walker, Randy Woods, Andrew and Erna Viterbi, Mary Ann Beyster, and JCVI Board Member Bill Walton and wife Lori.

Guests experienced our science first hand through various displays and had the opportunity to interact with many JCVI scientists to learn how advances in genomics are impacting our health and environment.

microbiome station

JCVI Scientists Manny Torralba and Stephanie Mounaud welcomed guests with a brief introduction to the palm microbiome by taking swabs and sharing aggregate population results midevening.

Following welcome remarks by J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., Founder & CEO of JCVI, Marlo Gottfurcht Longstreet shared her son Tanner’s battle with a Giloblastoma Brain Tumor. It is understood that the tumor developed as a result of a mutation in the TP53 tumor suppressor gene. Sadly, Tanner Jay Longstreet passed away in 2013 at the age of 11.

Marlo Gottfurcht Longstreet sharing her personal story about her son Tanner and ongoing work at the Tanner Project.

Marlo Gottfurcht Longstreet sharing her personal story about her son Tanner and ongoing work at the Tanner Project.

Personal tragedy turned mission for Marlo as she set out to do everything she could to better understand what afflicted Tanner, which gave rise to the Tanner Project at JCVI. Led by Nicholas Schork, Ph.D., the Tanner Project is what is referred to as an “N of 1” project – a single patient case study. Rather than go in for yearly checkups, the patient in the study is monitored daily so that any evidence of cancer can be detected at onset. The goal is to keep the study patient at what is referred to as stage 0. By closely monitoring the condition in this “N of 1” study, its application can be applied more broadly in personalized medicine – “N of 1 for everyone.”

Dr. Ornish discussed advances in personalized medicine and how simple behavioral changes can greatly affect patient outcomes. He addressed ideas presented in his most recent book, The Spectrum, suggesting diet and exercise are not all or nothing propositions. If today wasn’t a great food day, there is no reason tomorrow can’t be. This kind of thinking can greatly improve longevity and quality of life.

Dean Ornish speaking to gala attendees on advances in medicine.

Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith (right) walks gala attendees through JCVI advances.

Rangers and the Re-Arrangers

The evening was rounded out with a delectable dinner, dancing, and gypsy jazz music by Seattle’s Rangers and the Re-Arrangers.

JCVI is grateful to its event sponsors – CapitalOne Bank, BioMed Realty, Synthetic Genomics, Inc., Human Longevity, Inc., Thermo Fisher Scientific, Gunderson Dettmer, ZGF, and Egon Zehnder – for their support. Thank you as well to our DNA gift bag sponsors: Way Better Snacks, GoodBelly, Kowalski Communications, La Jolla Playhouse, Lean & Green Café, and Travel Set Go.

JCVI remains committed to tackling today’s pressing medical and environmental concerns, and we continue to rely on your generosity to achieve our goals. For more information on funding needs and opportunities, please contact Katie Collins as

JCVI Scientists Join NASA-Funded Astrobiology Research Teams

Scientists from J. Craig Venter Institute are part of teams awarded grants from NASA to “study the origins, evolution, distribution, and future life in the universe.” Dr. Christopher Dupont is part of a team led by the University of California, Riverside and will study chemical energy stored in rocks as a potential power source, while Dr. Shino Ishii will work with a team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory looking at the habitability of extraterrestrial icy worlds.

Artist concept of an early Earth

Artist concept of an early Earth. Image Credit: NASA

From NASA’s Press Release:

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Team lead is Isik Kanik. Research will conduct laboratory experiments and field research in environments on Earth, such as The Cedars in Northern California, to understand the habitability of extraterrestrial icy worlds such as Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus.

University of California, Riverside. Team lead is Timothy Lyons. Research will examine the history of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere and ocean between 3.2 and 0.7 billion years ago. This is a time range in which the amount of oxygen present is thought to have increased from almost nothing to the amounts present today. This work will address the question of how Earth has remained persistently inhabited through most of its dynamic history and would provide NASA exploration scientists a template to investigate the presence of habitable conditions on Mars and other planetary bodies.

See the complete release.

Trapping Microbes 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle

About 1% of all microbes are “culturable” in the lab. They are some of the most stubborn organisms requiring special and specific nutrients as well as optimal temperatures and conditions. So, how do we get the “unculturables” to be “culturable”? We make bacteria “traps”, where we take media, sandwich them between a membrane that cannot be penetrated by bacteria and another membrane that can be penetrated by bacteria. Bacteria can grow and migrate toward the trap and essentially get stuck within the membranes and we can cultivate them afterwards. What about bacteria that don’t migrate? We can account for these bacteria by taking them out of the soil, placing them in media and putting them back into the environment using devices called diffusion chambers. These diffusion chambers consist of two membranes that are able to hold bacteria and media yet are porous enough for nutrients and ions. Using these techniques we have already cultivated more than 15 previously uncultivated species. For year two of this project we intend to cultivate at least 90 new species for whole genome shotgun sequencing. WGS data from such new species will be incredibly useful in determining which metabolic pathways are present to allow these organisms to survive in such a harsh barren climate.

Diffusion Chambers

Diffusion Chambers

Setting Bacterial Traps

Setting Bacterial Traps

Traps Under Water

Traps Under Water

Thule, Greenland Year Two

Sequence data from the previous year allowed us to determine the overall microbial population in each site and this year we decided to focus on the Rich Lake site which seem to have representation of nearly all microbes found in the other sites. So lucky for us we only had to work on one site this year rather than six. This in itself had me excited to go back to Thule. After a five-hour flight on a military plane from BWI I finally arrived to Thule Greenland where we were greeted by the Colonel as well as other high ranking military officials at the hanger. Once I cleared the customs processing area, I arrived to the dorm where the other scientists were living. It was a little different from last year’s accommodations but nevertheless the luxuries of WI-FI, Internet and cable TV were all available. As I am anxious to get to the field and see the changes in the Rich Lake site, we were given some interesting news. That day was not a good day to travel to the site because a mother polar bear and her two cubs were spotted nearby not too long ago by military police. However, we managed to get other work done by preparing the schedule for the sampling, cultivation and other labwork.


The next few days consisted of preparing culture media, cultivation traps and diffusion chambers, and going out into the field (polar bear spray in hand; yes it’s a real thing!). We were extra careful in the field since there was quite a bit of fog in the area that did not seem to go anywhere and fog happens to be the same color as polar bears. The fog did however make it a bit easier to sleep since most of the sunlight was covered and when there’s 24 hours of daylight from mid-April until September, a little fog can still serve a purpose.

Rich Lake Site

Rich Lake Site



Professional Development Opportunities this Summer

This summer we are offering two professional development workshops: GenomeSolver and Bioinformatics: Unlocking Life through Computation.  Both explore bioinformatics, microbial diversity and the implementation in the undergradauate or high school classrooms. 

The GenomeSolver workshop trains faculty on genome analysis. Workshop attendees will learn about general methodologies, standards, and processes used to annotate and analyze microbial genomes. The workshop contents will be available to aid the faculty in developing teaching modules. In addition, extensive documentation on methodologies and tools will be available via the online environment created for this project. On online web portal Genome Solver ( will be a virtual space for development and sustaining of community. Genome Solver will assist faculty with technical issues and curricular design, as well as an online environment for the ongoing sharing of information including publication of student work.

Bioinformatics: Unlocking Life through Computation is a new opportunity for high school teachers. Genomics and biotechnology are valuable tools in our quest to understand life and nature. However, introducing the science classroom to the computational and mathematical underpinnings of biology can be challenging. The goal of this workshop is to introduce a curriculum for mathematics and science education in the area of genomics (with a focus on the fascinating world of microbes). Educators will be introduced to the various analysis and computational challenges that arise in this discipline. Workflow examples illustrating comparative genomic analysis will be made available through the JCVI Metagenomics Report (METAREP) software infrastructure. The eventual aim is for the educational material to be integrated with local high school curricula requirements to expose students to both hypothesis-driven and discovery-based science.

Amazon Expedition

Yesterday, JCVI expedition scientist Jeff Hoffman embarked from Manaus on a sampling expedition of the Amazon River and its tributaries, which contains 1/5th of the Earth’s river flow. In collaboration with scientists Dr. Guilherme Oliviera and Dr. Sara Cuadros from the Centro de Excelencia em Bioinformatica (CEBIO) of Belo Horizonte, Jeff is taking samples to characterize the genomes of microbes found along 2/3rds of the entire Amazon watershed, including inflowing rivers from Manaus to Macapa. Our collaborators at CEBIO will be sequencing the samples with a joint Brazil-USA effort on analysis. Long recognized for the biodiversity of visible organisms, the Amazon is understudied with regards to the diversity of microscopic organisms and this expedition will substantially increase our understanding of the biological diversity on Earth. This work continues, leverages, and complements previous and ongoing JCVI work characterizing the unexplored microbiomes of marine, estuarine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments around the world.

See a gallery of the expedition on Facebook. More pictures will be added throughout the trip.

The 2014 Summer Internship Application is Open and Announcing the Genomics Scholar Program

The 2014 Summer Internship Application is now open.   Last summer, we hosted 49 interns from a pool of 424 applicants. They presented their research in the First Annual Summer Internship Poster Sessions held in San Diego and Rockville. The posters were judged by a team of volunteer JCVI scientists and the poster sessions were open to all employees, interns and their guests to share what great work they all participated in this summer.



2013 Intern Poster Session

2013 Intern Poster Session

We are also excited to announce the new Genomics Scholar Program beginning this summer and also accepting applications.  The Genomic Scholar Program (GSP) is a targeted research experience program to community college students in Rockville. Our program incorporates multiple avenues of support for students through the research experience with the Principal Investigators as mentors, and supplemental professional development provided by the JCVI.  Additionally, selected students will have the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research conferences.

The GSP is supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number R25DK098111.