[[Editor’s note: The following article is the first in an ongoing series focusing on the accomplishments and favorite projects of UCSB’s top scientists and researchers.]]

Like many of UCSB’s dedicated professors and researchers, Eduardo Orias does not have a lot of free time.
Since 1994, Orias, a researcher professor of genomics, has worked with UCSB students and researchers to sequence a protozoan genome that may greatly aid scientific research concerning human genetics, and help detect stresses on the environment.
But when he’s not analyzing chromosomes, studying environmental dangers or solving scientific puzzles, he enjoys playing ping-pong twice a week.
“Among others, I play a lot with research professor John Cotton, who’s also retired and continues his research in statistics,” Orias said.
Orias said he has studied the protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila – a freshwater organism that has complex cell structures – since 1956. Orias organized the sequence of the protozoan’s genome 12 years ago, the findings for which were published last month in the Public Library of Science Biology journal.
Before a genome is sequenced, Orias said, scientists must clone the genes of interest one by one. He said Tetrahymena shares multiple gene sequences with humans and other species, making the protozoan, a group of single celled organisms, a valuable model organism for future research.
“Let’s say you have genes that are shared by Tetrahymena and humans, and you don’t know what the gene is doing,” Orias said. “Because the sequence is similar, then what it is doing in human cells must be similar, if not the same, in Tetrahymena.”
Orias said Tetrahymena has been used in major scientific discoveries and is of particular interest to scientists because it is inexpensive, grows rapidly and has a well-studied biological makeup.
“You can do a lot of research with it,” Orias said. “What you learn is applicable to many other species like humans.”
Despite knowing the makings of the protozoan’s genome, Orias said his lab must now complete the assembly and order of it. To use a simple analogy, the researchers know the letters of the alphabet, but now they must figure out the order in which it goes.
Beyond the assembly dilemma, Orias said he is looking at the protozoan for its environmental stress indications. When Tetrahymena is in freshwater with high amounts of Cadmium — a heavy metal harmful to humans — it can fluoresce, or glow.
“So [the protozoan] makes a good indicator and a quick test for water quality,” Orias said.
Orias said he also wants to study how Tetrahymena determines its mating types, which enables the organism to produce offspring.
“In order to mate, they have to recognize the other cell as having a different mating type,” Orias said.
Juggling all his research projects is not as difficult as it might seem. Orias said he loves his research, which drives him to achieve and work harder.
“I’ve always done what’s exciting to me,” Orias said. “You have to do what’s important to contribute to science and get grants to fund your work, but it’s still all exciting for me.
The professor, who was born and raised in Argentina, began contributing to science many years ago at the University of Michigan, where he realized that his original plan to major in physics might not be the path for him.
“I took a genetics course for non-majors and found it more interesting,” Orias said.
Orias went to graduate school at Michigan where he studied in the zoology department, and where he met his wife, Judith Dodge Orias. The couple, married for 50 years now, has three children, all of whom attended UCSB, where Orias began working in 1959.
He retired as a faculty member 12 years ago and became a research professor.
“That’s when my genomics career started,” Orias said.
Although Orias’s experience and breadth of knowledge in genetics spurs the discoveries made in his lab, Orias said much of the genome project was completed with the aid of undergraduate research. Since 1994, Orias said, around 60 undergraduates have done research in his lab.
“I encourage undergraduate research because that’s where undergraduates get their first taste of research, and of learning new knowledge about the living world,” Orias said.
Orias said he does not seek undergraduates to aid him in his research because they either find him or hear about his research through word of mouth.
Undergraduates can also learn about the Orias lab through an undergraduate research seminar series headed by Professor David Kohl in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Dept. The seminar introduces students to faculty research.