Shape-shifting cells and evolution: Bisson’s journey with archaeal research

February 19, 2021

Alexandre Bisson (BIOL) and his team are currently researching how evolution has shaped the behavior of molecules within cells through the use of archaea, a domain of single-celled organisms. Bisson gained an interest in this topic while completing his Ph.D. in Brazil at the University of São Paulo, where his research primarily involved isolating proteins in cells. 

Bisson compared studying an isolated protein to studying a bird in a zoo. “We learn a lot by studying the features of individual cells in controlled conditions, but they really shine in their jungle,” he wrote to The Brandeis Hoot in an email. After completing his degree, he wanted to study proteins in their “jungle:” the cell.  

Bisson and his lab have worked alongside scientists across the United States as they search for a microbe with the ability to “preserve a record of humanity,” according to an article in Science Magazine. His work specifically focuses on the DNA of Halobacterium salinarum (a difficult to kill, salt-tolerant microbe) and its behavior in salt crystals. Bisson wrote to The Hoot that his current research now extends beyond halobacterium to haloarchaeal species in general.

“We love archaea because they are the closest prokaryotes (cells that don’t have a nucleus) to us—eukaryotes (cells that have a nucleus compartmentalizing their genetic material),” Bisson explained for his use of archaea. He added that this relation to humans and our limited prior study of this domain makes it “an exciting opportunity to discover new biology.”

Bisson and his team prefer working with one particular archaea group known as Haloarchaea.  He explains that these archaea are not only fascinating because of their ability to grow in “strange environments” but are easy to domesticate, grow and genetically engineer.

Bisson explained that his lab is “interested in poking cells with specific “molecular sticks” (chemical, genetic and physical perturbations) and learning how these stimuli influence the transition between different shapes.” It has been established that the way a cell is shaped can be connected to particular behaviors and tasks. Bisson and his team work to answer questions about the seemingly complex mechanism by which cells are able to “shape-shift.”  He is optimistic that this research will lead us to “create synthetic organisms that can adapt to perform specific therapeutic interventions in real-time inside our bodies,” he wrote to The Hoot.

The next step in the lab’s current research is to select thousands of other species from the archaeal branch and observe which traits and behaviors evolve and which remain unchanged. This could give us a better understanding of evolution and even “be the recipe for how to make a eukaryotic cell from scratch,” he explained.The research team is enthusiastic about how quickly they are discovering new things about these organisms. “And here I am, together with my lab at Brandeis, blasting lasers on these tiny, salty beings and begging their molecules to tell us their story,” he wrote to The Hoot.

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