It takes a village: Rosie Alegado and coastal microbial communities

Rosie AlegadoEditor’s Note:  Rosie Alegado represents one of a cluster of seven faculty hired as a result of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s former Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw’s initiative to promote multidisciplinary sustainability. This ambitious initiative is aimed at integrating science, engineering, and design into decisions on sustainable development and public policy in coastal communities, with particular focus on developing, engaging, and implementing wise and sustainable use of energy and water resources, and in the management and reuse of waste.

Understanding what drives the abundance and structure of coastal microbial communities and what impact human activities may have on that structure is an essential component in the design and construction of cities and towns that function within the capacity of their natural systems. Rosie Alegado’s work combines her long-standing interest in comparative genomics, evolutionary biology, and chemical ecology. She studies the microbial signals that elicit morphogenic responses in choanoflagellates, organisms that form important links between bacteria and higher levels of the marine food web and play key roles in the ecology and biogeochemistry of oceans and  estuaries.

Born to grassroots community activists who were also professors at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Alegado’s childhood was filled with community service projects involving the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, Ka Papa Lo‘i o Kānewai, and the Union of Democratic Filipinos. These experiences afforded her unprecedented awareness of the social issues that faced Native Hawaiian and local communities in the 1980s and 1990s, and instilled in her the tenets of social justice, equality, and aloha ‘āina (love of the land) at a very young age. Indeed, over the course of her education – graduating from Kamehameha Schools, attaining an undergraduate degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a PhD from Stanford University, and a postdoctoral fellowship at University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) – these themes continued to permeate her life.

Two influences during high school set the trajectory of Alegado’s career – the first was Hui Lama, Kamehameha Schools’ environmental science and hiking club, and the second was the Honors Science Research program. Founded in 1974 by Charles Burrows, Hui Lama engaged high school students in environmental restoration projects as well as fieldwork with Hawai‘i’s top environmental scientists. From identifying a new species of spider on Keith Robinson’s  land in Makaweli on Kaua‘i, to building erosion resistant trails in Haleakalā National Park on Maui, to counting native bird species in the rainforests of Puna and the tundra of Alaska, Alegado’s encounters with these unique people and places galvanized her desire to help preserve and protect Hawai‘i’s fragile ecosystems.

In contrast, honors biology teacher Gail Ishimoto provided Alegado with her first taste of molecular biology. Together with Lawrence Mordan, a former researcher at the Cancer Research Institute of Hawai‘i, Alegado’s high school science fair project aimed to use comparative sequence analysis of mitochondrial genes to resolve the origins of the moanalo or Thambetochen, an ancient flightless Hawaiian bird that was most certainly driven to extinction by early Native Hawaiian settlers. Was it a goose or a duck?

Alegado’s preliminary results supported the archeological data and incited her passion for molecular approaches and evolution.

Instead of staying in Hawai‘i for  her formal education, Alegado felt she could make the most impact by being immersed in new and innovative modalities and bringing them back to Hawai‘i. Her interests in how organisms interact with their environment were fine-tuned toward deciphering the underlying molecular bases for these interactions. Alegado’s doctoral dissertation focused on chronic infection of the round worm C. elegans with the bacterial pathogen Salmonella typhimurium, a causative agent of food poisoning. Supported by a Ford Foundation Fellowship, Alegado sought to understand the nature of persistence in worms because the outcome of Salmonella infections in humans is reliant upon effective control of this pathogen in the intestinal tract.

In 2007, Alegado joined Nicole King at UC Berkeley in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in the hopes of bringing her expertise in microbiology to bear on understanding choanoflagellate-bacterial interactions. Choanoflagellates are marine microeukaryotes and the closest living relatives of animals; their study has yielded insights into the cell biology of the ancestor of animals.While at UC Berkeley, Alegado established an interdisciplinary program to understand the influence of bacteria on animal evolution; a question that forms the foundation of her current lab research. The species of choanoflagellate that Alegado studies, Salpingoeca rosetta, forms simple rosette-shaped colonies and Alegado’s postdoctoral work centered on identifying the chemical signal that triggered formation of choanoflagellate colonies.

The notion that bacterial signals could trigger the closest relatives of animals to transition between a unicellular and multicellular lifestyle has significant implications on how animals might have evolved. Could the trigger for animal multicellularity also involve bacteria? These are fundamental questions that Alegado hopes to answer here at UH Mānoa.

Ultimately, Alegado hopes to translate her findings from modeling microbial community dynamics to
understanding the impact of land use in fragile Hawaiian estuarine and marine wetland ecosystems.
Wetlands play crucial roles in decreasing the export of nutrients to downstream ecosystems and
microbial communities, and control biogeochemical transformations important for improving water quality. By leveraging her training in classical microbial genetics with experience in evolutionary biology to model microbial community dynamics, Alegado will carry out both lab-based experimental modeling and field-based sampling of microbial populations in coastal environments such as He‘eia Fishpond. This work promises to yield discoveries not only germane to the goals of the coastal sustainability initiative, but is the first of its kind to model the microbial processes underlying indigenous Native Hawaiian sustainability practices.

Throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies, Alegado never wavered in her desire to return home to Hawai‘i to serve her community. In many ways, she feels that she has come full circle, combining her love for Hawai‘i and scientific passion for the environment and ocean ecosystems. As a faculty member in the Department of Oceanography within the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, Alegado embraces the idea of partnerships between research, outreach, and education, and between the community and the university. Most of all, she looks forward to combining fieldwork and molecular approaches to reveal the biology of organisms in the ocean ecosystem, and then bringing this knowledge back to her teaching, and fostering future young scientists with their passion for learning and love for our natural world.

Rosie Alegado would like to thank her ‘ohana (family) for instilling her with the values that she works to perpetuate every day. Without their unending support and aloha, she would not be able to carry out her research. Mahalo piha.

Source:  This profile was written for Ka Pili Kai, a newsletter that is published quarterly by the University of Hawaiÿi Sea  Grant College Program (UH Sea Grant), School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology  (SOEST). UH Sea Grant is a unique partnership of university, government, and industry,  focusing on marine research, education and advisory/extension services.  For more information, visit the UH Sea Grant webpage.