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Past Winner
2003 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Gary Saunders


University of New Brunswick

Gary Saunders
Gary Saunders

Life evolves from simple organisms to more complex ones. Right? Wrong, says Dr. Gary Saunders, a recipient of a 2003 NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes. And his painstaking evolutionary research into a group of poorly understood marine organisms, the red algae, is helping reinforce this point.

"There's this view that a lot of people have, and remarkably a lot of biologists seem stuck with it, that evolution always goes from simple to complex. That's not always the case. What we've found, contrary to previous thinking, is that some of the simplest red algae are some of the most recently evolved ones. So at one level we're turning our understanding of algal evolution upside down," says Dr. Saunders, a University of New Brunswick biology professor, and one of Canada's few researchers in the taxonomy and systematics of algae.

Red algae (Rhodophyta) range from microscopic single-celled creatures to large algae, such as Irish Moss. They are found worldwide in marine tidal zones, and there are as many as 7,000 species in total.

"I would say that the average person doesn't get through the day without red algae as part of their life," says Dr. Saunders, who has travelled to shorelines from British Columbia to Australia and Chile in search of new algal species.

The polysaccharides found in red algae are used to produce the emulsifiers and thickeners in products ranging from ice cream to cosmetics. Nori, the wrap used in making sushi rolls, is also made from red algae.

Dr. Saunders' research of the past decade has pioneered the use of new genetic analyses to reinterpret the evolutionary history and familial relationships of red algae, and several other algal groups.

In the past, mapping the red algal family tree has been stymied by two facts: these marine creatures are anatomically simple, so there are few features for comparison; and they generally don't fossilize, so there's almost no fossil record. So, early 20th century researchers turned to the diverse and cryptic reproductive strategies in these algae to classify them into biological groupings.

According to Dr. Saunders, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Systematics and Biodiversity at the University of New Brunswick, the absence of clear, defining, physical features and the prevailing notion that these marine creatures were "simple" led to an underclassification of their diversity.

"I think a lot of this goes back to Linnaeus and beyond – the idea that algae are pond scum, that they're not that interesting, they're not that important, there's not that much diversity there," says Dr. Saunders. "What we're finding is that some of these previous groupings are in fact a hodgepodge of very different sorts of lineages."

While an NSERC Steacie Fellow, Dr. Saunders will be looking for new genetic markers to "plug holes" in his ongoing gene-based reassessment of red algal relationships. The research is important in the search for new economically valuable red algae, he says. It provides information on which species of red algae are most closely related, and thus most likely to have similar properties.

The Steacie research will also make the link between the genetics of red algae and the algae's "bizarre" range of reproductive strategies, research that could further challenge commonly held notions about evolution.

"The animals and land plants are two little bumps on the tree of life from a planetary biodiversity perspective," notes Dr. Saunders. "I think a lot of our ideas on how evolution has shaped life may change when we look further at red algae."