UBC Community and Partners Publications

Small Wonder 2010

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BIoDIveRsIty ReseARch 14THe UnIVeRSITY OF BRITISH COlUMBIA • OFFICe OF THe VICe PReSIDenT ReSeARCH & InTeRnATIOnAl They are more numerous than any other life form on Earth. They make an essential contribution to the biosphere, helping to generate air, create soil, degrade toxic chemicals, and filter water. And they are more numerous in your body than your own cells. These are the microbes, a vast taxa of single-celled organisms that include bacteria, viruses, yeasts, molds and algae. Despite their ubiquity, so little is known about them that investigators struggle to determine where research should begin and which questions need to be asked. “We have vastly underestimated the diversity of life and are profoundly ignorant of microbial life,” says Prof. Patrick Keeling, an evolutionary biologist and principal investigator at UBC’s Biodiversity Research Centre. “Exploring microbes’ diversity and evolution is crucial to understanding all ecological systems. We’re studying the tree of life,” says Keeling, a UBC Distinguished University Scholar. His curiosity about fundamental questions relating to life on Earth is the driving force behind research projects that include using molecules to reconstruct evolutionary relationships and examining how parasites evolve and infect their hosts. Keeling says high-powered microscopes are a mainstay of his work, enabling his research team to identify and document new life forms and to isolate single cells for molecular analysis in gene sequences. These tools allow Keeling to explore at the most basic level what distinguishes species, how they have evolved and how communities of organisms interrelate. As Director of the Centre for Microbial Diversity and Evolution, a virtual hub of interdisciplinary research based at UBC, Keeling says a big challenge is keeping up with rapidly developing technologies. “But it’s these new technologies and an inter-disciplinary approach that will allow us to explore the most basic questions and to understand the nature of the universe,” he says. The Centre for Microbial Diversity and Evolution has received funding from the Tula Foundation. Keeling’s research is funded by CIHR, NSERC, Genome Canada, and Canadian Institutes for Advanced Research, and has received past support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The beaty biodiversity centre this $50-million project will house the Biodiversity research Centre and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. the Biodiversity research Centre is an academic unit comprising more than 50 internationally renowned scientists dedicated to the study of biodiversity. Interdisciplinary working groups study the biological forces that produce and sustain biodiversity, as well as the forces that lead to extinction, and the local and global consequences of species loss. the Beaty Biodiversity Museum is a new public museum dedicated to building understanding and appreciation of biodiversity and to making research conducted at the Biodiversity research Centre accessible to the public. In 2010 it will open its doors and showcase more than two million specimens of plants, insects, fish, shells, birds, mammals, and fossils. sMALL WONDer Photo > Courtesy of Andrew Trites


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