Jose Lopez, professor at the Oceanographic Center, was inspired to study oceanography by his curiosity of the unknown.
“My first visit to a coral reef is really what hooked me,” Lopez said. “I took a tropical ecology class as a graduate student and went snorkeling in the Bahamas. You could actually see a lot more coral back then. … The diversity was fascinating.”
Lopez eventually started studying genetic research and then sponges.
“When we start looking within the tissues of sponges, we find that there’s all this microbial diversity,” Lopez said. “Some sponge bodies are almost 50 percent bacteria. They’re an integral part of the animal.”
In his research, Lopez seeks to answer how sponges live with these bacteria through genetic methods and bacterial taxonomy. Now, he’s also studying bacteria that live on the human skin. He and other researchers have launched a project titled The Skin Deep Microbiome Project.” They will gather samples from volunteers to see the variations of microbes among people and analyze them using genomic sequencing. The project is also being crowd funded on Indiegogo. Through a collaboration with the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, Lopez and the researchers will analyze the samples using a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer from Illumina, a company that manufactures tools to analyze genetic variation.
“Now we can do in-house DNA sequencing as well, and at the same time we’re going to train our students to learn how to run this machine, and it’s going to be great training for them; they’re also going to help analyze the data,” Lopez said. “This is what’s going to prepare them for the next generation of jobs and perhaps research.”
Lopez said that while the project is unusual for the Oceanographic Center it’s also connected with his lab’s focus on symbiotic research on marine animals.
“We’re emphasizing that all animals are interdependent with other organisms,” Lopez said. “Whether you’re a sponge, a coral, a fly or a human, everything’s living interdependently on other organisms not just for food; you might be getting unknown benefits from these microbes.”
Lopez is also one of the founders of Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance, known as GIGA, an initiative to sequence the DNA of as many marine invertebrate animals as possible.
“It’s very ambitious, but it’s doable with the technology that’s growing,” Lopez said.
Lopez is currently trying to get funding for the project and believes it can be part of a bigger genomics program at NSU as he is fascinated by genetics and enjoys the flexibility he has as a scientist and professor to ask questions about it.
“It’s all about discovery and exploration — pushing the envelope and looking at the unknown,” Lopez said. “Genetics and evolution have always been a fascination to me. There’s just so much we don’t know and so many questions we can ask. Life is very fragile and complex, and studying biology and genetics has helped focused that for me: to look at life in its intricate details.”