According to Dr. Juan Lopez-Bautista, who has worked on several National Science Foundation panels, the trick to getting NSF funding is whether or not you can answer yes to the question “is it research that will change our textbooks?” Lopez-Bautista has done just that recently by discovering a new classification of plants thanks to research involving deep sea algae.
The green algae evolved about 540 million years ago, making it the oldest branch on the tree of life. Previously researchers, including Lopez-Bautista, had assumed that such early plants were single-celled, like phytoplankton. This algae, however, are actually multicellular life forms within a jelly. This new discovery puts multi-cellular green plants earlier into the evolutionary history of the Earth, and it gives us a whole new point of reference for comparing other plants and trying to unravel their evolution.
The initial discovery of this algae earned Dr. Lope-Bautista a $2.76 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which allowed him to hire assistances and help him map the genome of this and other algae species found in the Gulf of Mexico. That research made use of new technological and software developments that allowed them to map those genomes much faster than they could have even a few years ago, which helped figure out exactly where these algae are, evolutionarily speaking, in relation to other plant species.
Like any big discovery, this one has opened up space for a lot of new questions, like how this algae diversified and has been able to survive for so long. Some of those questions will be taken up by other scientists. But for Dr. Lopez-Bautista, there are lots of other habitats that need to be explored and compared to the Gulf to get a better idea of how this and other algae species survive in different environments.