By Mick Roberts
It’s not every day someone discovers an evolutionary missing link ‘ especially right under our noses in Australia’s busiest waterway.
A brown alga found in Sydney Harbour by university scientists could provide the key to treating diseases that disable and kill millions each year.
Associate Professor Dee Carter from the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences at the University of Sydney and her former PhD student, Robert Moore, found the new species of single-celled algae in 2004.
Known as Chromera velia, the species has been labelled an evolutionary missing link, which could lead to a cure for malaria.
It’s just in recent months that the Sydney University pair became somewhat famous after tests in laboratories in Europe and the United States began creating a stir.
Associate Professor Carter said it seems the brown alga discovered is closely related to a parasite and is the ‘missing link’ in parasite evolution.
The Glebe academic has worked at the Sydney University for 13 years and said the discovery has raised the profile of the institution worldwide.
As a result, the university has taken out a provisional patent on the algae.
“Not only will this alga help us understand the transition to parasitism, we hope it can help us find and test new drugs against malaria and the other parasites, which remain among the most difficult diseases to treat,’ she said.
Chromera velia was found living in a bay not far from Sydney’s busy Circular Quay.
Dee told The City News that it turned out to be the closest living photosynthesising relative to a group of parasites called Apicomplexa. The Apicomplexa are parasites that cause malaria and other diseases that kill and disable millions of people every year.
“On the surface it looks like any one of the numerous small algae we commonly refer to as plankton. But molecular analyses show it is actually related to a more sinister group of parasitic organisms that include Cryptosporidium, Toxoplasma and Plasmodium, the agent of malaria.
Ms Carter’s former student, Robert Moore, found the species while researching algae that inhabit corals and allow them to grow. Their research focuses on understanding the lifecycle and biodiversity of algae living in corals, as they are important for reef conservation.
“Robert had a few samples from Sydney Harbour and thought he would keep other algae that he came across apart from the ones we were studying,’ Ms Carter said.
‘One of these turned out to be Chromera velia! It was thanks to Robert’s scientific curiosity and his perseverance growing the algal culture that this discovery was made,” Dee said.