David Caron, a professor of biological sciences in USC College, has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM).
Caron is one of 54 scientists elected to the academy this year. Fellows are chosen through a highly selective, peer-review process based on scientific achievements and contributions that have advanced microbiology. Made up of some 2,000 fellows, the American Academy of Microbiology is the honorific leadership group within the American Society for Microbiology.
“It is a great honor to be recognized by your peers,” said Caron, who is also a member of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. “I’m very pleased.”
A biological oceanographer by training, Caron is a leading expert on the ecology and diversity of protists, the multifarious grouping of microscopic life that includes skeleton-forming diatoms, slime molds, shape-shifting amoebas and the planktonic algae that can cause toxic ocean tides. Caron’s work has focused on many aspects of protistan biology — from probing the physiology of organisms living in the Antarctic to identifying new species off the Southern California coast and surveying the diversity and abundance of marine protist populations around the globe.
“It’s an extremely well-deserved honor,” said Douglas Capone, the Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of biological sciences in the College who is also a fellow of the AAM. “With the application of modern molecular techniques, Dave is defining the cutting edge of research on the microbial ecology of protists.”
Jed Fuhrman, the McCulloch-Crosby Chair in Marine Biology, professor of biological sciences and an AAM fellow, nominated Caron.
“Being named a fellow reflects Dave’s cumulative, lifetime contributions to science, especially on the discovery side of things,” Fuhrman said. “Dave has been a pioneer in revealing the biodiversity and significance of marine protists in aquatic ecosystems. He has done important basic research, as well as more applied work, looking at harmful algal blooms and why they’ve become more prevalent in recent years.”
Protists are such a heterogenous group that many scientists suggest a more accurate name for them would be something like “organisms that are neither bacteria, plants, animals nor fungi.” Most are small, single-celled organisms. Unlike bacteria, protist cells contain a nucleus, and so are considered eurkaryotes (plants, animals and fungi are also eurkaryotes). Caron’s use of genetic and molecular tools to identify hundreds of new species, some of which appear to be more closely related to non-protists than to each other, has added fodder to the debate over whether protists should be classified into a single group.
Marine protists include both photosynthesizers like algae and the protozoa, which prey on other creatures. Caron has helped to show that many protists originally thought to be in one of these categories are actually switch hitters — using sunlight for energy at times and consuming other organisms when the need arises.
Caron’s research on harmful algal blooms focuses on determining the causes of toxic tides, looking carefully at ecological relationships and environmental conditions that may trigger the events. His team, using molecular techniques he developed, monitors local coastal waters for new blooms and environmental conditions. He is also part of an interdisciplinary team developing a robotic environmental monitoring system that could quickly alert scientists and public health officials of an impending toxic tide.
He has published more than 130 papers in scientific journals and is the recipient of one of the highest awards in his field, the Seymour Hutner Young Investigator Prize from the Society of Protozoologists. He served as president of the International Society of Protistologists in 2004–05.
Caron has a Ph.D. from the joint program in biological oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. He received an M.S. in oceanography and a B.S. in microbiology from the University of Rhode Island.
He joined the College from WHOI, where he worked as a scientist from 1985 to 1999, eventually holding the Mary Sears Endowed Chair for Excellence in Biological Oceanography.
Caron’s research has taken him from small freshwater ponds in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea and the Antarctic’s Ross Sea. An avid diver, he has participated in more than 24 major research cruises and led studies off Bermuda, Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas and at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island.
In addition to Fuhrman and Capone, USC scientists previously named AAM fellows include professors Kenneth Nealson and Miriam Susskind of USC College and Bill Costerton of the USC School of Dentistry.