Molecular biologist Marek Eliáš receives a prestigious award

Annually the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic awards prizes in several areas. The prizes are awarded for exceptional projects related to engineering, physical sciences, medical and biological sciences, social sciences and humanities, and agricultural or biological environmental sciences. Nominees for the Award of the President of GA CR are proposed by several hundreds of scientists who evaluate projects that have financially been supported by the Grant Agency. The evaluators finally shortlisted 32 projects across the areas mentioned.

This year´s nominees included two representatives of the University of Ostrava - historian Petr Kadlec from the Centre for Economic and Social History of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ostrava, and molecular biologist Marek Eliáš from the Faculty of Science of the University of Ostrava (FS UO). The prize was finally awarded to professor Eliáš for his project The dark side of plastic biology: evolution and function of leucoplasts in algae.

“I´d like to thank GA CR not only for the award but also for longstanding support. It seems to me I won the award for my life´s work rather than for this concrete project that I hadn´t considered to be special, just like the previous ones. I always have bad feelings when I write the final report as I think I haven´t met the objectives of the project. Many thanks also go to all of my colleagues; I was very sorry that the portrait video that was shot focused too much on the chief investigator. I also want to thank my home institution – the University of Ostrava. You know I see the sense of being awarded also in the fact that I have an opportunity to promote my home university. As you can see, pretty good science can even be done in Ostrava,“ said professor Marek Eliáš from the Department of Biology and Ecology of the FS UO when collecting the award.


For a long time, Marek Eliáš has been fascinated by ancient organisms on the Earth. In his research, he focuses on unicellular eukaryotes, at their molecular, genome, and cellular levels. The GA CR appreciated his project The dark side of plastic biology: evolution and function of leucoplasts in algae, by which he contributed to a better understanding of the evolution and function of the so-called plastids or cellular organelles that originated from endosymbiotic cyanobacteria more than billions of years ago and have been present in cells of plants and algae up to this day.

Our research deals with cellular structures called plastids, which is a relatively broad category containing various forms. The most famous ones are green photosynthetic organelles called chloroplasts that all of us met for the first time as early as when we studied a primary school. However, in our project, we focused on those plastids that do not photosynthesize and the existence of which may even be surprising to somebody,“ explains Marek Eliáš.

One of the iconic algae groups is that of euglenids, the most famous of which is Eugena Gracilis representing a kind of a “model“ of the whole group of photosynthetic euglenids. Much less mapped are nonphotosynthetic euglenids for which it has been confirmed that the vast majority of them have no plastids and have never had any – well, except for a few exceptions. These exceptions include, for instance, Euglena Longa hiding in itself a mysterious plastid that has been put under the microscope of the team of professor Eliáš. Under a light microscope, it looks seemingly inconspicuous – it has one flagellum and a cytoplasm full of paramylon granules. To find out more, the team had to use other techniques such as electron microscopy and, of course, genomics, transcriptomics, and bioinformatics.


The most important results of the team´s research are then based on the mapping of metabolic functions of Euglena Longa. “To shed some light on the yet unknown cellular role of the plastid of Euglena Longa, we sequenced the transcriptome of this species, and using bioinformatic methods, we reconstructed the functional map of its plastid. The results indicated that the plastid displayed a completely unprecedented combination of functional pathways, and it thus represents a whole new type of plastid at all. What surprised us was that Euglena generally lacked the homology of components of a standard apparatus to import protein from the cytoplasm into the plastid. Therefore, we assume that the mechanism of the import of protein into Euglena plastid takes place in a fully nonstandard, new and yet unknown way,“ describes professor Eliáš.

Moreover, the team managed to discover a whole new line of nonphotosynthetic algal flagellates with very large organellar genomes. A new genus named Leontýnka looks like a typical order of chlamydomonadales, but not green. “It has two flagella used to move with, two contractile vacuoles for osmoregulation, a light-sensitive spot for light reception, and under the microscope pronounced starch granules that the algae store in the plastid,“ describes Dr. Dovilé Barcyté pointing at the screen.

What is most interesting, according to the team of professor Eliáš, is Leontýnka’s plastid genome that they managed to sequence. “Quite unsurprisingly, it lacks genomes linked to photosynthesis. Still, the plastid genome is large. It is even the largest ever known genome for any nonphotosynthetic plastid. The size is given by a huge accumulation of repetitive sequences of an unknown function in intergenic regions,“ adds professor Eliáš.


The outputs of a single project supported by GA CR were, however, numerous. The team, among others, managed to evidence the presence of a cryptic plastid in a strange amoeba-like organism of the genus Leukarachnion and to reveal the so far unknown aspects of the biology of another type of endosymbiotically formed organelles – mitochondria. “Czech science has a long-term tradition of exploring unusual forms of another type of mitochondria, and now we´re trying to follow a similar path in the case of plastids. We still have a lot of work to do. Right now, we are trying to use the methods of reverse genetics,“ concludes professor Marek Eliáš from the Department of Biology and Ecology of the Faculty of Science of the University of Ostrava.

Each nominee for the Award of the President of GA CR shall receive a reward of 100,000 CZK.

Source: Grant Agency of the Czech Republic

Updated: 10. 11. 2021