Interdisciplinary PhD in Molecular Biosciences

Dr. J. Brian Robertson - Research Interests

Life forms ranging from simple microbes to complex vertebrates have evolved timekeeping systems that allow coordination between their various life processes and their rhythmic environment of day-night cycles. Although there are some basic similarities of these biological clocks; bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals all seem to have their own version of timekeeping systems including separate genes, proteins, and mechanisms. Some species possess fully functioning clocks that tick at the same rate regardless of their environment. Other organisms use an "hour glass" strategy where they measure the time since dawn or dusk but cannot keep time in a constant environment.

In a general sense, my lab is interested in the timekeeping strategies and mechanisms of microbes such as cyanobacteria, archaea, and yeast. Although these are relatively simple organisms, they are of great importance to industry as a source for biofuels and enzymes. Just as humans become more productive during certain parts of the day (and require rest/sleep at other times of the day), so too can microbes' productivities be rhythmic. Understanding the mechanisms that underlie these biological rhythms offers a way for the biotech industry to increase productivity and yield from these organisms.

Because microbes are relatively simple in their shape and activity, detecting rhythmic behavior from them can be challenging. One solution to this problem is to introduce a bioluminescent gene from fireflies called luciferase that allows the microbes to glow in the dark depending on when certain rhythmic genes are activated or repressed. In this way, light emitted from the microbes becomes an easily detected and measured output of their genetic activity. My lab focuses on the development of these bioluminescent reporters in microbes and applies them to answer questions about genetic regulation and rhythmic behavior in microscopic life.

Colonies of the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae exhibiting bioluminescence from the firefly luciferase gene under the control of a yeast cell cycle promoter ( POL1).

Common Topics and Techniques in my lab

  • Bioluminescence
  • Microbiology (non-pathogenic)
  • Biotechnology / Industrial Applications / Technology Development
  • Circadian Rhythms / Biological Clocks
  • Microbial Metabolism (respiration, fermentation)
  • Genetic Engineering / Transgenic Manipulation
  • Laboratory-Directed Evolution of Enzymes