Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Hambleton

Group leader
University of Vienna
Department of Microbiology and Ecosystem Science
Division of Microbial Ecology
Djerassiplatz 1
A-1030 Vienna
Phone: +43 1 4277 91203

Algae-animal photosymbioses

From eukaryotic organelles to coral reefs, microbial symbioses confer powerful abilities on hosts. In algae-animal symbiosis (“photosymbiosis”), symbionts transfer photosynthetically fixed nutrients to hosts, an advantage in harsh environments. Animals throughout the tree of life associate with dinoflagellate algae, namely those in the family Symbiodiniaceae, which populate reef-building corals and other cnidarians, acoel flatworms, sponges, and molluscs. Despite their ecologically and evolutionary importance, surprisingly little is known about these how these diverse photosymbioses function on the molecular level.

Our driving questions:

What is the basis of host-microbe intracellular communication and nutrient exchange, and how does it impact metabolism and survival in changing environments? How do some animals acquire microbial symbionts (and others do not)?

Our group addresses these questions by combining single-cell multi-omics, functional experimentation, and metabolomics/lipidomics to compare symbiosis mechanisms across hosts.

Our creatures:

We predominantly conduct laboratory experiments using our animal and algae cultures in the AquaLab at UBB, University of Vienna. Some projects also involve fieldwork in the Mediterranean and Japan.

The photosymbiotic organisms we are currently focusing on are cnidarians and acoel flatworms. We have multiple lines of the model sea anemone Aiptasia sp. in the lab, and we conduct fieldwork on Acropora sp. reef-building corals and Anemonia sp. temperate anemones. We have also established a new molecular model system with the acoel flatworm Waminoa sp. In the wild, these flatworms live epizoically on coral surfaces yet have a distinct stable symbiosis with algae. We have multiple clonal lines of symbiotic adults, and have generated aposymbiotic worms. The Waminoa grow happily in AquaLab in Ikea glassware and divide both asexually and sexually. The naturally aposymbiotic juvenile worms grow and take up symbiotic algae from the environment, giving us the opportunity to synthetically reconstitute symbiosis with defined partners.












Current projects in the group include:

• Single-cell transcriptomics in reef-building corals

• Molecular programs of algae-containing animal cells in the novel model flatworm Waminoa

• Defensive lipids in algae-animal photosymbioses

• Transfer and function of microbially-produced sterol lipids in photosymbioses












Joining the lab:

If you are interested in joining the team and would like to discuss options for fellowship applications, please get in touch with Liz and/or check out information on our Master programDoctoral school, and open positions within DOME and CeMESS.