Marcela Uliano da Silva, Brazilian Genome Biologist
Marcela Uliano da Silva is the second child of a salesman and housewife from the small metropolis city of Criciúma. She recalled having to be careful with her money throughout childhood in order to attend private school, “the only way” to ensure admission to a top university in Brazil, she said. (Melissa Pandika, 2014) Her father’s support was invaluable as he worked long hours and helped ensure that she would be the first in her family to obtain a Ph.D. In her teenage years, Marcela was captivated by punk rock, history, and social sciences. She started watching the Discovery Channel because of her best friend, who was a biology geek. This soon sparked her passion as well, and she thus decided to study molecular and cell biology on scholarship at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. She attended a public university for her BS, MS and Ph.D. in Brazil and earned scholarships throughout her entire time to afford her schooling.
Marcela challenged the unspoken hierarchy in the scientific research community by applying to present at a local university during her undergraduate studies, an opportunity that is restricted to only Ph.D. students. It was here that she met her Ph.D. adviser, Mauro Rebelo. Despite having published 6 works in Europe PubMed Central beforehand, it was at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 2013 that Marcela became well-known in the scientific community for her Ph.D. thesis to eliminate a foreign species encroaching on the Amazon River’s shores: the golden mussel.
She aimed to eradicate this species by sequencing its genome to determine its strengths and weaknesses. The golden mussel rose to prominence in the 1990s in South America as it choked river systems and caused millions of dollars worth in damages by clogging power plants and water treatment facilities. It was estimated that the clogging of power plant pipes caused losses of up to $20,000 a day in 2013. Simultaneously, this species changes the transparency of water, enabling more sunlight to pass through, which leads to toxic blooms, oxygen deprivation and massive fish deaths. All of this ensures a massive decrease in biodiversity in ecosystems over time. The golden mussel posed an immense threat to the Amazon river and thus, in order to combat the threat, Marcela began work on mapping the species’ entire genome. In 2014, Marcela published a paper titled Gene Discovery through Transcriptome Sequencing for the Invasive Mussel Limnoperna fortunei, and it was the first published molecular profile for this mussel. Until this publication, there had been no genetic information regarding the golden mussel available to the general public. With this genome, Marcela hopes to inject mussels in the laboratory with molecules known as silencing RiboNucleic Acids (RNAs) that identify and specifically turn off golden mussel survival genes. These genetically-modified mussels shall then be released into the wild to breed to ensure the expression of these genes amongst future generations of golden mussels.
Marcela defended her genome thesis work in 2017 and was pleased that her research had identified certain peculiarities in the golden mussel genome that might give it advantages as an invader. After the completion of her thesis, she moved to Berlin, having accepted the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) individual fellowship. She then worked on sequencing the complete genome of 3 sloth species native to South America as a member of the Vertebrates Genome Project, which aims to compile reference genomes for all 66,000 living vertebrate species on Earth. This project is particularly meaningful to her as she wanted to examine the molecular basis behind the convergent process of evolution that ensured that all sloths live exclusively suspended in trees, despite the fact that their ancestors were giant terrestrial species. In simple terms, her research aims to understand what various sloth species have in common and what differences they have in terms of their genome in order to better comprehend their evolution over the centuries. In an interview, she admitted another key feature that drew her to this research was how similar the different species looked, even though they had different numbers of toes on their forelimbs and different ways their muscles connected from the body to the bones in their arms. This research will enable scientists to preserve, prevent and fight diseases for all species. Dr Mazzoni, Marcela’s colleague and partner on this project, said, “This will be the final step to actually understand the convergence itself as we can see how the sloths are different from each other. So if they converged in similar ways by using the same metabolic pathways or even the same genes and the same proteins, then we can start correlating this with the function these convey.
Marcela then went on to work at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany as a computational biologist, and she remains at this institute to this day. In May 2020, she released a preprint of a ground-breaking research paper with other experts working on the Vertebrates Genome Project entitled Towards complete and error-free genome assemblies of all vertebrate species.
by Raina Talwar Bhatia
Arang Rhie, Shane A. McCarthy, Olivier Fedrigo, Joana Damas, Giulio Formenti, Sergey Koren, Marcela Uliano-Silva, William Chow, Arkarachai Fungtammasan, Gregory L.Gedman, Lindsey J. Cantin, Francoise Thibaud-Nissen, Leanne Haggerty, Chul Lee, Byung June Ko, Juwan Kim, Iliana Bista, Michelle Smith, Bettina Haase, Jacquelyn Mountcastle, Sylke Winkler, Sadye Paez, Jason Howard, Sonja C. Vernes, Tanya M. Lama, Frank Grutzner, Wesley C. Warren, Christopher Balakrishnan, Dave Burt, Julia M. George, Mathew Biegler, David Iorns, Andrew Digby, Daryl Eason, Taylor Edwards, Mark Wilkinson, George Turner, Axel Meyer, Andreas F. Kautt, Paolo Franchini, H William Detrich III, Hannes Svardal, Maximilian Wagner, Gavin J.P. Naylor, Martin Pippel, Milan Malinsky, Mark Mooney, Maria Simbirsky, Brett T. Hannigan, Trevor Pesout, Marlys Houck, Ann Misuraca, Sarah B. Kingan, Richard Hall, Zev Kronenberg, Jonas Korlach, Ivan Sović, Christopher Dunn, Zemin Ning, Alex Hastie, Joyce Lee, Siddarth Selvaraj, Richard E. Green, Nicholas H. Putnam, Jay Ghurye, Erik Garrison, Ying Sims, Joanna Collins, Sarah Pelan, James Torrance, Alan Tracey, Jonathan Wood, Dengfeng Guan, Sarah E. London, David F. Clayton, Claudio V. Mello, Samantha R. Friedrich, Peter V. Lovell, Ekaterina Osipova, Farooq O. Al-Ajli, Simona Secomandi, Heebal Kim, Constantina Theofanopoulou, Yang Zhou, Robert S. Harris, Kateryna D. Makova, Paul Medvedev, Jinna Hoffman, Patrick Masterson, Karen Clark, Fergal Martin, Kevin Howe, Paul Flicek, Brian P. Walenz, Woori Kwak, Hiram Clawson, Mark Diekhans, Luis Nassar, Benedict Paten, Robert H.S. Kraus, Harris Lewin, Andrew J. Crawford, M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Guojie Zhang, Byrappa Venkatesh, Robert W. Murphy, Klaus-Peter Koepfli, Beth Shapiro, Warren E. Johnson, Federica Di Palma, Tomas Margues-Bonet, Emma C. Teeling, Tandy Warnow, Jennifer Marshall Graves, Oliver A. Ryder, David Hausler, Stephen J. O’Brien, Kerstin Howe, Eugene W. Myers, Richard Durbin, Adam M. Phillippy, Erich D. Jarvis. (2020, May 23). Towards complete and error-free genome assemblies of all vertebrate species. bioRxiv. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.22.110833v1
Da Silva, M. U. (2013, February 1). (PDF) Biological invasions. How invasive species threaten biodiversity: The case of the golden mussel Limnoperna fortunei and the Amazon river basin. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235752081_Biological_invasions_How_invasive_species_threaten_biodiversity_The_case_of_the_golden_mussel_Limnoperna_fortunei_and_the_Amazon_River_basin
EURAXESS. (2017, March 8). Interview with Marcela Uliano Da Silva, Brazilian computational biologist, TED fellow and MSCA grantee. https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu/worldwide/brazil/interview-marcela-uliano-da-silva-brazilian-computational-biologist-ted-fellow
Frances, K. (2014, October 7). Invasion of the golden mussel: A TED fellow wields genes to protect the Amazon. TED Blog. https://blog.ted.com/a-ted-fellow-wields-genes-to-protect-the-amazon/
ORCID. (2020, May). Marcela Uliano Da Silva (0000–0001–6723–4715). https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6723-4715
OZY. (2015, November 13). Marcela Uliano Da Silva’s crusade against the golden mussel. https://www.ozy.com/the-new-and-the-next/marcela-uliano-da-silvas-crusade-against-the-golden-mussel/32937/
Pandika, M. (2014, November 17). Marcela Uliano Da Silva’s crusade against the golden mussel. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/11/141117-marcela-uliano-golden-mussel-amazon-molecular-biology-dna-sequencing/
SCIALL ORG INC. (2019, December 17). Marcela Uliano Da Silva. SciAll.org. https://sciall.org/team/marcela-uliano-da-silva/