Each year, marine algae remove gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by photosynthesis of polymeric carbohydrates or glycans. Extracellular matrix glycans, which form a gel barrier around the algal cells, evolved to protect against organisms that try to eat algae. In this project Jan-Hendrik Hehemann and his group will explore whether bacteria can live in the matrix. The group will take measurements of bacteria in the matrix to try to perceive how they react, adapt, live or die and find out how the matrix protects the algae carbon. This work is relevant, as emerging biogeochemical data indicate algae synthesize matrix glycans from carbon dioxide faster in the ocean than bacteria digest and return them as carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Exploring molecular causes for this imbalance may reveal whether and how the matrix makes bacteria release less — and algae remove more — carbon dioxide. Applications of this work are not limited to removal of carbon. Basic principles of how the matrix protects algae in the ocean may also apply to the glycan matrix surrounding and protecting humans, animals and plants from bacterial digestion.
Jan-Hendrik Hehemann is a professor of glycobiochemistry at the University of Bremen in Germany and is also affiliated with the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM) at the University of Bremen and the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology (MPI MM).
Hehemann studied biochemistry in Hamburg and completed his Ph.D. in 2010 at the Roscoff Marine Station and Pierre and Marie Curie University Paris University (now the Sorbonne), where he was a Marie Curie Fellow. He then held EMBO and HFSP fellowship-funded postdoctoral positions at the University of Victoria in Canada and at MIT. In 2015, he began five years as an Emmy Noether research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology and the MARUM. Since 2021, he has been a Heisenberg Professor heading the Bridge Group for Marine Glycobiology jointly between the Faculty of Biology and Chemistry, MARUM and the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology.