IGBB Researcher's Fossil Study Garners International Attention
March 4, 2019
Matthew Brown pictured in his laboratory at Mississippi State. Photo by Logan Kirkland
Research developed using an $832,000 National Science Foundation grant in a Mississippi State
University biologist’s lab is gaining international attention this week in Current
Biology, a premier bi-monthly scientific journal.
Matthew Brown’s paper -- “Phylogenomics and Morphological Reconstruction of
Arcellinida Testate Amoebae Highlight Diversity of Microbial Eukaryotes in the
Neoproterozoic” -- appears Current Biology. Brown additionally discusses the topic in a
current piece also published on The Conversation at
An assistant professor of biological sciences at MSU and senior author on the Current Biology
paper, Brown and his team focus on linking ancient fossils to modern living organisms using a
new method, advanced in his lab, which bypasses genome sequencing.
“By sampling organisms that are alive today, we can ask deeper questions about their
evolution that happened millions of years ago in now extinct ancestors,” Brown said.
Working alongside Brown are Assistant Professor Daniel Lahr from the University of Sao Paulo,
Brazil; MSU post-doctoral fellow and Fulbright Scholar Tomáš Pánek from
the Czech Republic; and current MSU doctoral students Alexander Tice and Seungho Kang.
With the advent of DNA sequencing in the early 2000s until now, researchers have used a
relatively small piece of the genome to examine the relationships between organisms, with
In 2015, through NSF grant support, Brown developed a new process of taking a single-celled
organism directly from the environment and sequencing its entire transcriptome, what Brown
calls “the blueprint of all the proteins it makes.”
“This work is adding to our fundamental knowledge of how basic features of living
organisms have evolved over millions of years,” said Angus Dawe, head of MSU’s
biological sciences department. “This includes the morphologies and origins of
behaviors, such as interactions between cells, which have huge implications for our
understanding of organismal development and disease.”
“What makes this study revolutionary is that we are using a cutting-edge technique
perfected in my lab to study a single testate amoeba cell taken from the environment,”
Brown said, likening the amoeba to “micro snails” with microscopic shells
making them identifiable.
“The cool thing about these organisms is they fossilize well, which is rare for
microbial eukaryotes,” Brown said.
Brown said the comparisons he and his team are able to make between ancient fossils and
today’s living organisms helps him better understand the “family tree”
connecting the old and the new.
“Effectively, we now know how the organisms alive today are related to each other in a
tree of life called a phylogeny,” Brown said.
Brown’s lab and an international group of colleagues used fossils from Brazil and
Arizona dating back 766 million years for their study. “To put this into perspective,
the oldest dinosaur shows up in the fossil record about 230 million years ago,” Brown
Testate amoeba are single-celled microbes that can be found in places like moss beds, soils
and in freshwater, but during Lahr’s 2015 MSU visit, Brown and Lahr found their research
material in the sidewalk crusts in front of MSU’s Colvard Student Union.
Brown’s techniques are a key part of an emerging trend in computational approaches to
biological questions, Dawe said. “Having expertise like Dr. Brown’s in the
biological sciences department means we have the ability to train the next generation of
Brown, a native of northern Arkansas, completed his bachelor’s in 2005 and Ph.D. in
2010, both in biology, at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. After a three-year
postdoctoral stint in the Centre for Comparative Genomics and Evolutionary Bioinformatics at
Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, he joined MSU’s faculty in 2013.
Brown is currently a fellow of the Institute for Genomics, Biocomputing and Biotechnology
at MSU’s High Performance Computing Collaboratory. He was named the 2018 College of
Arts and Sciences Dean’s Eminent Scholar, a 2015 College of Arts and Sciences
Researcher of the Month and also received a 2015 College of Arts and Sciences Research
Award for the Natural and Physical Sciences.
MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences includes more than 5,300 students, 300 full-time
faculty members, nine doctoral programs and 25 academic majors offered in 14 departments.
Complete details about the College of Arts and Sciences or the biological sciences department
may be found at www.cas.msstate.edu
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