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MARUM research prize for two junior scientists in the marine sciences

Feb 18, 2019

Dual honour for researchers at the MPI Bremen: Rafael Laso-Pérez and Stefan Becker each receive the MARUM Research Award 2019 for their outstanding dissertations.


"I am extremely honoured to receive the MARUM Reserach Award for Marine Science for one of the best PhD theses", says Rafael Laso-Pérez. “This work would have never been possible without my supervisors and mentors, head of the MPI-research group and AWI-director Antje Boetius and Gunter Wegener, as well as many more people who have supported me during these years. Thanks to all of them, I could develop my research on some microorganisms that I consider amongst the most interesting in our field: anaerobic archaea." 


During his thesis, Laso-Pérez discovered that some anaerobic archaea are able to degrade multi-carbon hydrocarbons using a new version of a well-known mechanism. They used modified versions of the methyl-coenzyme M reductase (MCR) to activate these multi-carbon compounds. MCR has been known for a while as the key enzyme in the methane metabolism of archaea, being involved both in methanogenesis and methanotrophy. It was thought that MCR was highly specific for methane metabolism.


However, the results of Laso-Pérez' thesis show the existence of modified MCRs that are used to degrade butane and propane in the novel archaea Ca.Syntrophoarchaeum. This discovery has opened up a new research topic. Several studies have found these MCRs in other archaea after Laso-Pérez' revelations. “All together, my research shows that archaea play a more important role in hydrocarbon cycling as previously thought and opens new perspectives in the role of MCR in archaeal evolution”, Laso-Pérez concludes.

“I am very grateful that my PhD thesis is being rewarded with the MARUM Research Award for Marine Sciences”, says Becker, who now works as a PostDoc in the MARUM MPG Bridge Group Mar­ine Gly­cobi­o­logy, located both at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology and the MARUM - Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences of the University of Bremen. “This achievement was only possible with the indispensable support of my colleagues, collaborators and friends”, Becker continues. “I would particularly like to thank my mentor Jan-Hendrik Hehemann for placing his trust in me when the group was just started in 2015.”

In his work, Becker provides evidence that laminarin, the energy storage sugar of tiny marine algae, is a central bioenergy molecule of the ocean. To reach this conclusion, Becker developed a new technology during his thesis to quantify laminarin. This biocatalytic assay makes use of the enzymatic toolkit of marine microbes. These microbes evolved specific enzymes in order to gain energy and carbon from the abundant carbohydrates.

The first comprehensive quantification, which Becker now conducted, yielded an average contribution of laminarin to the carbon in algae derived organic matter of astonishing 37±19 percent in the environment. This highlights the ecological relevance of laminarin by its sheer abundance of more than one third of the particulate organic carbon in surface waters. “My work contributes to our general understanding of the marine carbon cycle in the surface water of the ocean”, Becker explains.

In this environment, microalgae sustain approximately half of the global primary production and yield significant amounts of organic carbon in the form of polysaccharides such as laminarin. “So far, the role of this class of biological macromolecules in the carbon cycle is poorly understood due to the technological challenges in their analysis. The quantification of a single marine polysaccharide on a broad scale has therefore never been done before. Our new approach starts to close this gap of knowledge and technology.”

Rafael Laso-Pérez, winner of this years' MARUM Research Award.
Rafael Laso-Pérez (© A.Kegel, Max-Planck-Institut für Marine Mikrobiologie)
Dr. Stefan Becker
Dr. Stefan Becker (© A.Kegel, Max-Planck-Institut für Marine Mikrobiologie)

The MARUM - Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences of the University of Bremen annually issues the MARUM Research Award for Marine Sciences. This prize is awarded to outstanding master's or doctoral theses that have been written over the past two years by young marine scientists at the University of Bremen. The prize money of up to € 3,000 is to be used as a scholarship and is intended to benefit the scientific objectives of the awardee.

"The MARUM awards the researh prize in recognition of outstanding achievements by young scientists," says MARUM director Prof. Michael Schulz. "As a cluster of excellence, the qualified training of young scientists is particularly important to us in order to create the best possible conditions for young people for their future careers."

The MARUM Research Award for Marine Sciences is awarded in cooperation with the "Verein zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung in der Freien Hansestadt Bremen (VFwF e.V.)"


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Dr. Fanni Aspetsberger
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