The investigations of the research group focus on the biodiversity of protists, specifically of ciliates (Alveolata, Ciliophora). The organisms are collected in a wide variety of habitats (sea, freshwater, soil). Newly discovered species are described, using state of the art methods and insufficiently known species are redescribed (taxonomy & nomenclature). The cell morphology, the patterns of cell division, the conjugation processes, and the ultrastructure of the cell (e.g., the anchoring structures of the cilia, mini-harpoons), the resting cysts, as well as of the partially occurring shells are investigated by means of light microscopy (bright field, interference contrast, phase contrast), electron microscopy (scanning and transmission electron microscopy) and a wide spectrum of histological staining techniques. The shells of marine planktonic ciliates are further key research area. Their formation and the potentially responsible genes for the generation of the material shall be analysed by an approach combining confocal laser scanning microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, and transcriptomics. Thereby, the chemical composition of the rather resistant shells can further be elucidated.
Our computer-based cladistic analyses of the discovered morphological and ultrastructural characters provide together with the molecular phylogenies based on barcoding data insights into the evolution and the adaptations of the ciliates as well as into their relationships. The latter are the basis for the systematics of these organisms. The biogeography of the ciliates is investigated, using DNA-metabarcoding in collaboration with colleagues of the TU Kaiserslautern (Germany) and Chinese partners. Several databanks facilitate the access to the about 80.000 micrographs and videos, the about 9.500 literature references, and the about 80.000 records of ciliate species.
The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) financially supports the several projects of the research group. Our studies yield not only publications in peer-reviewed international journals ( PLUS_Research), but also demonstrate that the protist diversity is an order of magnitude larger than previously assumed and that the vast majority of species are undescribed.
Since protists are crucial components of all food webs, species circumscriptions are essential for assessing their ecological role, trophic interactions, and geographic distribution, especially, when the taxa are model organisms (e.g., Nobel Prices 1989 and 2009). Accordingly, taxonomic expertise combining morphologic and molecular investigation techniques is indispensable and represents a promising biological discipline.
The studies of the AG Agatha are conducted with international collaboration partners and results in numerous publications ( PLUS_Research). The bachelor, master, and doctoral students benefit from this strong scientific network and is complemented by the participation in congresses with the presentation of own findings, and publications.
Students for Bachelor-, Master-, and Doctoral Thesis who are interested in the field of ciliate taxonomy, phylogeny, and ultrastructure are welcome and get a broad introduction in a wide spectrum of methods. Beyond the subject-specific aspects, the students obtain further competences concerning, e.g., scientific writing (e.g., application of office and phylogenetic programs, basics of image processing), poster and oral presentations on congresses, the work with historical literature (translations of texts in foreign languages), and graphic skills. The numerous prices for the best oral presentations and posters won by students of the AG Agatha reflect the high-quality training ( PLUS_Research).
Oral presentation at Meeting of British Protistological Society: