New genus of marine organisms named in honor of ocean scientist Jon Zehr

Jonathan Zehr
Jonathan Zehr
Zehria floridana cells under microscope
Zehria floridana, a newly described genus and species of cyanobacteria. (Image credit: Mares et al., 2019)

A newly described genus of marine microorganisms has been named in honor of Jonathan Zehr, a professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz who has spent most of his career studying these types of microbes and their role in ocean ecosystems.

The new genus, Zehria, is described in a paper, published March 4 in the Journal of Phycology, that sorts out the taxonomy of an important group of marine cyanobacteria, including species that play a crucial role in fertilizing the oceans by "fixing" nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form usable by other organisms.

"It's nice to have my name associated with this group of organisms because I've spent so much of my career working on them," Zehr said. "I've been telling people I won't need to have a gravestone now."

Zehr is not a taxonomist himself, but he knew the senior author of the paper, Jeffrey Johansen at John Carroll University in Cleveland. "I called him after I found out, and he reminded me that I'd helped him out as a graduate student when he asked for some advice," said Zehr, who sent Johansen a couple of bottles of wine to thank him for the honor.

Zehr's research has focused on an unusual cyanobacterium that is among the most widespread nitrogen-fixing organisms in the oceans. Known as UCYN-A, this organism has not been formally named because it cannot be grown in culture. Zehr's group first discovered it in the open ocean near Hawaii and has since found it as far north as the Arctic. His research has also shown that UCYN-A lives in a close symbiosis with a small, single-celled algae.

The new genus Zehria is related to the organisms Zehr studies and includes the species Zehria floridana, isolated from mangroves on the coast of Florida, and other strains isolated near Singapore.