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Pond life: meet the scientist discovering the invisible but incredible beauty of protists

PUBLISHED: 08:30 26 September 2020

Sally’s Instagram account @pondlife_pondlife has almost 50,000 followers   Picture: Sabrina Imbler

Sally’s Instagram account @pondlife_pondlife has almost 50,000 followers Picture: Sabrina Imbler

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Each puddle of water is teeming with life – though the lifeforms contained within cannot be seen with the naked eye. Postdoctoral scientist Dr Sally Warring is researching the genomes of microorganisms called protists at the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park. Here she explains why she decided to put protists under the microscope and how they can help broaden our understanding of the complexities of evolution.

�A jar of pond water from will have thousands � possibly millions � of protists,� says Dr Sally Warring  Picture: Shawn Simpson�A jar of pond water from will have thousands � possibly millions � of protists,� says Dr Sally Warring Picture: Shawn Simpson

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

You are a protistologist, what does that involve?

I study the DNA of protists – a group of microscopic, unicellular organisms. They are not bacteria, viruses or fungi but eukaryotic organisms, which have a complex cell structure because they have a nucleus. In fact, humans are made up of eukaryotic cells. I am interested in what protists can tell us about evolution and ecology.

Pictures: Sally WarringPictures: Sally Warring

Protists are everywhere and they are incredibly biologically diverse. They engage in complex behaviours and interact with their environment in interesting ways. Some are hunters, others are prey, some are community builders that create structures like houses and shells, and some even have mating rituals!

We think there are more species of protists than animals but we know so little about them because they are small and therefore harder to study. A jar of pond water will have thousands – possibly millions – of protists.

What have you done to bring your study of protists to life?

A ghostlike protist    Pictures: Sally WarringA ghostlike protist Pictures: Sally Warring

During my PhD I was living in New York City and started collecting samples of protists from ponds in Central Park. I photographed and filmed the organisms, building up a catalogue of images and videos of microorganisms which I publish on my social media accounts. I have since collaborated with organisations such as the American Museum of Natural History to make my ‘microbiotic movies’ and documentaries and have also exhibited art installations.

Natural history documentaries basically only focus on animals, which constitute just one branch of the tree of life – but there is much more life on the tree! And when microorganisms feature in natural history content they tend to be shown as either animations or still images. I think that can lead people to think they are not very dynamic organisms when actually they are very dynamic!

Did you always want to work in science-based research?

Montage of green algae      Pictures: Sally WarringMontage of green algae Pictures: Sally Warring

I was studying history at the University of Melbourne and not enjoying it very much, so I randomly decided to take a course on botany and was blown away by how fascinating it was. I loved taking the knowledge I learned in class and going outside to look at a tree and understanding why the leaves turned yellow.

After completing my undergraduate degree in botany, I did my PhD at New York University in 2011 and became obsessed with free-living protists found in ponds, rivers and oceans. After that I worked with the American Museum of Natural History and earlier this year I came to the UK to join the Darwin Tree of Life Project at the Earlham Institute.

What is the Darwin Tree of Life Project?

A desmid protist Pictures: Sally WarringA desmid protist Pictures: Sally Warring

The aim is to sequence the genome of all native eukaryotic species in the UK. My team is working to develop new technologies to sequence genomes of protists – those grown in the laboratory via cultures and those we isolate from the environment.

The Earlham Institute is one partner in the project along with others across the UK, including the University of Oxford, Wellcome Sanger Institute and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

It’s a fantastic place to work with people who are pushing the envelope and developing new things in terms of genomics. Researchers at the Earlham Institute have different skill sets, so we can combine computer science and metadata building tools with biology, genomics and photography.

And the pond outside the Earlham Institute is really beautiful, especially when the reeds sway in the wind.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

I meet up with the Norfolk Ponds Project who study and restore freshwater ponds on Norfolk farmlands. I really like ponds! In fact, Norfolk has more freshwater ponds than any other county in England.

My husband and I have a nice house in Whinburgh, near Dereham. We enjoy countryside walking tours going from pub to pub and I’m riding horses again as I didn’t get to do that much in New York City!

Dr Sally Warring is a postdoctoral scientist researching protistology at the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park. 
You can follow her on Twitter @SallyWarring and Instagram @pondlife_pondlife


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