User:Jernej Turnsek

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I am a postdoctoral research scientist in Krishna K. Niyogi's laboratory in the Department of Plant & Microbial Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. I grew up in the Land of Green Gold, Slovenia. As a synthetic biologist-turned-phytoplankton molecular and cell biologist, my research focuses on molecular, cell, and evolutionary biology of phytoplankton biomineralization. I am generally interested in how biological systems produce and shape organic-inorganic composite materials.


“Nature has created an inexhaustible wealth of wondrous forms whose beauty and diversity way exceed anything that has been created by man.” -Ernst Haeckel


Diatoms are single-celled photosynthetic algae with exquisitely patterned species-specific silica (glass) cell walls called frustules. They are estimated to account for 20% of global primary production and are thus critical for maintaining Earth's habitability. Cleaned diatom frustules in this dark field micrograph were arranged by Klaus Kemp. The original microscope slide was a kind gift from Alina Chan. How do diatoms sculpt glass at ambient temperatures and pressures?

Biomineral Formation and Morphogenesis

What do teeth and bones, sea urchin spicules, mollusk shells, and diatom frustules have in common? They are all hierarchically organized organic-inorganic composite materials with superior mechanical properties. I study how biological systems produce and shape bioinorganic hybrid materials with specific focus on molecular, cell, and evolutionary biology of phytoplankton biomineralization.

I employ reverse genetics, imaging, omics, and bioinformatics in silica (glass)-producing heterokont algae Thalassiosira pseudonana and Synura petersenii to decipher the molecular basis of this remarkable vesicle-based, sunlight-driven nanotechnology. Specifically, my work is uncovering which organic molecules—including proteins and metabolites—orchestrate assembly of these structures and how their assembly is regulated.

Understanding of biosilica morphogenesis in these environmentally ubiquitous organisms will advance our knowledge of its link to global nutrient cycles including silicon and carbon. It will provide new insights into how biomolecules interact with inorganic surfaces with implications for the origin of life and biomaterials design.

Tp & Sp.png

(A) Thalassiosira pseudonana is a marine diatom here shown in girdle band (left) and valve (right) orientations. Image credit: Assaf Gal. (B) Left: Synura petersenii is a freshwater synurophyte covered in silica scales. Right: False colored Synura petersenii scales (teal: porous base plate, yellow: raised central keel, gray: upturned and inrolled rim). Image credit: Guangwei Min.

Polyamine Biosynthesis, Metabolism, and Function

Polyamines are widely conserved polycationic metabolites with pleiotropic cellular roles, however, their precise molecular functions remain largely elusive. I study unconventional polyamines involved in diatom biomineralization and (organellar) polyamine homeostasis in phytoplankton more broadly.

Disorder, Low Complexity, and Compositional Bias in Proteins

Intrinsically disordered and low complexity proteins are the hallmark of biomineralization processes. I am interested in the role these protein features play in relation to biomineral formation and morphogenesis as well as in their origin and evolution more generally.


  • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Grant GBMF4958 (August 2015–July 2018)

Contact Information


Jernej Turnšek, PhD
Department of Plant & Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, 431 Koshland Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720

Linkedin.png LinkedIn 1.png ORCID


  • Turnšek J et al. 2021. Proximity proteomics in a marine diatom reveals a putative cell surface-to-chloroplast iron trafficking pathway. eLife 10:e52770. DOI
  • Faktorová D et al. 2020. Genetic tool development in marine protists: emerging model organisms for experimental cell biology. Nat Methods 17:481–494. DOI
  • Conrado RJ et al. 2012. DNA-guided assembly of biosynthetic pathways promotes improved catalytic efficiency. Nucleic Acids Res 40:1879–1889. DOI



Creative Writing

Science Art

In the News


  • PhD, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Harvard University, 2020
  • MSc, Biotechnology, University of Ljubljana, 2012

Endurance Sports

I am an avid multisport athlete having competed in numerous open water swimming, running, cycling, and triathlon races including two marathons and three Half Ironman triathlons. I was a competitive basketball player prior to transitioning to endurance sports.

Personal Records

  • Half Ironman triathlon | Timberman 2016 08/2016: 5h 24' 02"
  • Olympic distance triathlon | Mass State Triathlon 07/2016: 2h 17' 24"
  • Sprint distance triathlon | Mission Bay Triathlon 10/2017: 58' 33" (qualified for The 2018 Olympic-Distance Age Group National Championship)
  • 26.2 | Baystate Marathon 10/2013: 3h 30' 55"
  • 13.1 | Boston's Run to Remember 05/2013: 1h 26' 30"
  • 10k | Mardi Gras 10K 02/2017: 38' 26"
  • 5k | Triton 5K 04/2017: 18' 32"

Sci-fi Vignettes

I've become interested in flash science fiction after learning about postcard-sized stories by Arthur C. Clarke and his contemporaries. "Short Tales from the Mothership" event at the UCSD Geisel Library promotes this elegant genre.

Recently Read

  • The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s (Catherine Baker) (currently reading)
  • Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
  • Hero (Rhonda Byrne)
  • The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (Shunryu Suzuki)
  • Indian running (Peter Nabokov)
  • The Doors of Perception (Aldous Huxley)
  • Deep Simplicity (John Gribbin)
  • Pravica (Srečko Kosovel)
  • Karantena. Rim. (Janko Petrovec)


Advice to a Young Scientist


Slovenian Language and Culture