Algae Analytics Kit Giveaway: 2017 Winners Announced

Congratulations to the three winners of the Algae Analytics Kit Giveaway of 2017! The Winners are:

John Dutton of Campus International High School in Cleveland Ohio

Stephanie Jones of Coretta Scott King Young Womens Leadership Academy in Atlanta Georgia 

Adam Jeschke of Bradley Tech High School in Milwaukee Wisconsin 

We look forward to sharing how these creative teachers will use the kits in their aquaponics, biology and environmental science classes. 

Cyanobacteria: The unsung hero's of desert soils

Recent news articles about blue green algae (Cyanobacteria) give them a bad rap. They are frequently in news reports because they can form toxic algae blooms. While there are a few species that contribute to these blooms, most blue green algae are an important part to healthy ecosystems. Some cyanobacteria are even thought to be healthy as a food source, such a Spirulina. However, did you know that blue green algae can literally hold the earth together?

In many places on the earth, the roots of plants reach into the soil, seeking nutrients and water and as a result protect that soil from wind and water erosion. In deserts, where plants are scarce, the soil is often left bare, where heavy seasonal rains and winds can easily erode soils. Without any protection soils would be washed or blown away, leaving nothing for plants to become established in. This is where cyanobacteria really shine. 

algae soil crust

We can think of cyanobacteria as very primitive plants. They need light, water and nutrients to grow. But one of the magical things about cyanobacteria that live in desert soils is their ability to survive very long periods without water. They can survive harsh conditions that would kill most other organisms. Therefore cyanobacteria are able to colonize and grow in places that look like they could be the surface of the moon. 

 

Once cyanobacteria have grown on a soil and formed what is called a cryptobiotic crust, they also change the character of that soil by helping to hold water and nutrients that help other organisms to grow. Spores from mosses and seeds from plants can better survive the harsh conditions of the desert with the help of the cyanobacterial soil crusts. 

 

Unfortunately, this soil crust is very delicate. And since it is dried out most of the time, even a foot print can crush it to dust making it again susceptible to erosion. In some areas soil crusts have been greatly impacted by farming and human development, which has resulted in the loss of delicate ecosystems of plants and animals. 

 

Haematococcus pluvialis cultivation

 

I have been growing cultures of H. pluvialis for several years and still haven’t figured out what exactly they like to grow optimally. I make have tried a media called “Optimized Haematococcus Medium” with mixed results. I also grow it at the temperature and light recommendations suggested for the best growth. However, this algae is still quite slow growing and never reaches high cell densities. This slow growth can lead to issues, namely contamination by other algae species. I recently had an issue of contamination which may have came in undetectable quantities in the original culture and only now reached noticeable density. This requires a re-isolation of the original H. pluvialis culture, a process that can take several months.

 

On the upside of my slow growing HP cultures, is high astaxanthin production. In my cultures I notice cells that are not quite in the full red/resting phase but still seem to be dividing and growing. The motile phase is barely present. Most other cultures of algae are much more straight forward to grow, but I feel it is worth my time to work on perfecting HP cultivation.

 

 

DSC02300.JPG

Algae: The base of the Marine Food Web

The diversity of life in the Earths oceans is astounding, despite the fact that we have explored less than 5 percent of its depths. Large animals like whales, dolphins and sharks might be what most people imagine when they think of creatures of the ocean, but photosynthetic algae may be the most important. Algae are the first step in a biological chain of events that make it possible for other life to exist, both in the oceans and on the land. 

Tidal pools along the Sea of Cortez provide a home to a diversity of both micro and macro algae species. 

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can not be created or destroyed, only transferred from one state to another. Luckily for us humans (and all other heterotrophs), ancient organisms developed a process to turn the suns energy and a readily available element (Carbon) into useable biomass: Photosynthesis. This transfer of light energy into stored chemical energy (Carbon to Carbon bonds) allowed for the proliferation of animals that have inhabited the earth starting with the first fishes of the Paleozoic. 

This marine snail has been feeding on benthic algae. The snail will likely become a food source for a larger fish. 

Ancient algae living in the oceans were very simple organisms similar to modern day cyanobacteria, a basic cell lacking the internal structure of organelle. Through time, as algal biodiversity increased so did the diversity of organisms that could feed upon them, setting up the base of a food web that has continued to this day. Imagine the simplicity of the first marine food web and how that has changed through time. The players have changed, but the rules are the same: get the energy and try to keep it. 

A fossilized stromatolite from Mexico. Stromatolites are ancient algae that have been mineralized. 

Algae play an important role in not just local and regional food webs, but in important global cycles like the Carbon and Nitrogen cycles. Without algae (perhaps even specific species of them!) the oceans of the Earth would not contain the diversity of life that they do. And to take that a step further, the entire planet would not contain the diversity that it does.

Algae Blooms: A general discussion

Algae blooms threaten public and environmental health. Certainly, better understanding of blooms is a first step towards helping to prevent them. Here is a general description of algal blooms for those interested in the topic. 

 Here is an algal bloom in China. These non-toxic algae are still alive and growing, but when they begin to rot, the swimming hole will lose its appeal. 

Here is an algal bloom in China. These non-toxic algae are still alive and growing, but when they begin to rot, the swimming hole will lose its appeal. 

 

Algae are often quick to respond to changes in the environmental in order to take advantage of favorable conditions. Each algae species responds to environmental variables in different ways. For example, one species of algae may grow very quickly in hot temperatures while the same temperature would kill another species. Now think of all of the environmental variables working together to create the suite of conditions that an algae species lives in. It is a complex interaction of conditions that creates the current state of being, for the algae.

 

Another way to think of this is that when some condition is not favorable for a species, that condition is limiting the potential growth of an algae poplulation. In a population of alga the response to growth can be almost immediate, meaning that they can begin to divide, one cell into two to produce the next generation at a moments notice. Under very good conditions (less limiting variables) some algae may do this a few time per day, which can result in bloom conditions, leading to masses of algae in the water.

 

Algae blooms and their increasing frequency are likely due to the use of synthetic fertilizers in commercial agriculture, namely phosphates. Fertilizers are applied to increase the productivity of the target crops (corn, soy..), all of which is not used by those plants. The excess fertilizers are washed from the fields by rainwater and into waterways, surface water impoundments, lakes and coastal habitats. Algae, like plants, enjoy this fertilizer, and given that other conditions are favorable, like temperature, grow as fast as possible to take advantage of these wonderful resources. 

 

Algal blooms negatively affect drinking water supplies, water recreation, fisheries and the other organisms living in the area. Some of the algae that bloom produce toxins which can harm humans, pets, livestock and wild animals. The toxins released by that algae can contaminate shellfish and other seafood, making huge economic impacts in affected areas. Besides the toxins, the biomass left behind by the dying bloom begins to decay, creating dead zones in the water where oxygen is depleted (eutrophication) by the decomposition process. 

 

 Here a bloom a kelp has washed ashore on Block Island, RI. 

Here a bloom a kelp has washed ashore on Block Island, RI. 


In recent years, scientists and regulatory agencies have become more interested in dealing with the problem of algal blooms. The EPA is considering adding algal toxins to its list of water contaminants monitored by the Clean Water Act. Besides being and interesting scientific topic, algae blooms are important for public and environmental health. Targeting and mitigating the causes of algal blooms is complex, but increasing understand should help to speed up the process. Educating ourselves and students about this topic provides a great opportunity for learning. 


Topics that could be covered related to algal blooms include:

  • Agriculture
  • Water Quality
  • Ecology
  • Biology
  • Public Policy
  • GIS
  • Statistics
  • Math
  • Use of Technology
  • Algal Identification

Using Algae for STEM Education

Algae are possibly one of the best learning tools educators could use. To the researchers who study them, algae provide vast opportunity to make new discoveries in both basic and applied sciences. A few of the insights we can gain by studying algae include learning about biological processes such as photosynthesis, helping to assess the health of an ecosystem, and reconstructing the history of climate in a region. We are also learning how we might be able to use algae to create things like clean energy and environmentally friendly plastics. Whatever the goals are, there is a lot to be learned from algae. 

I believe that algae can play an important role in education at many different levels. Teaching the disciplines of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to students from kindergarten through college is an important goal of education. Working with algae provides a real hands on potential to pursue many STEM topics. Experimenting with algae allows us to study their biology while at the same time using different types of technology to grow and measure it. The results from experimentation will be some form of data that can then be graphed and analyzed. Using algae to demonstrate and learn different topics is unlimited!

I am hoping to offer more materials through my website that will help facilitate teaching and learning about algae. Contact me to find out more and to let me know your ideas. 

 

Algae Kits Now Available

In order to make it easier to get started growing algae, I have added kits to the Algae Shop. The basic kit includes your choice of 1 liter of algae culture and 100 liters of growing medium. This is ideal if you already have a growing system or plan on building one. There  are also two kits that include complete growing systems, algae and media. 

 Algae growing kit including 4 bioreactors, algae culture and medium. 

Algae growing kit including 4 bioreactors, algae culture and medium. 

Check out our Algae Kits page in our Shop. You can also buy the bioreactors and algae cultures individually. 

Living Ink Kickstarter - Greeting Cards and Art made from Algae

The scientists at Living Ink Technologies in Denver Colorado have just begun a Kickstarter campaign promoting a greeting card that could revolutionize how ink is made. Their greeting card and art kits use living algae to create a time-lapse message or image that grows with exposure to sunlight. 

Living Ink Kickstarter

Using algae for ink is possibly the most novel applications I have heard of in the algae industry and one of the most feasible. There would be significant positive benefits to the environment by replacing traditional ink with an algae based ink, and Living Ink Technologies is proposing to do just that. 

Regular ink has a problem that most people don’t know about: It’s dirty, dirty stuff. Most colored pigments found in regular ink are made up of heavy metals like cadmium, copper, chromium, iron, lead, and aluminum.
— Living Ink Technologies

Checkout and support their Kickstarter right now and you will get to make your own living algae art and be one of the first people to use the ink of the future. 

Living Ink Kickstarter


Algae Education: Post #1 Getting Started Culturing Algae

Algae are perfect organisms to use in the scientific classroom to demonstrate many principals of biology and the use of scientific equipment. Algae can be relatively easy to cultivate on the small scale which can provide a continuous supply of material for students to work with.

 

 Tubes of algae samples being centrifuged. 

Tubes of algae samples being centrifuged. 

A few ideas of ways to work with algae in the classroom:

  • Demonstrate the use of the light microscope. This is a skill that biology students should have. 
  • Measure algal density using spectrophotometer, cell counts and dry weight. These methods are key to algae production and are not difficult to perform. 
  • Identify different types of algae. It is important to be able to identify potential contamination in your cultures. 
  • Setup and carry out experiments. There are endless possibilities here. Test how differences in media, nutrients, light, temperature or other environmental variables can affect algal growth. 

To get started culturing algae you will need:

  • Containers to cultivate the algae. Glass works well, with some kind of lid to minimize evaporation and contamination. 
  • A suitable place to grow the algae. Mainly what you need here is the proper level of light and temperature. 
  • Starter culture of algae. I provide a few of the most popular strains, however many more species are available through culture collections. 
  • A suitable growing media for the algae culture. There are many different kinds of media recipes available and also pre-made media are available. 

I will be adding more content to this website to help facilitate learning about the many different aspects of algae on our planet. Please contact me to let me know what kind of information you would like to see. 

 

Diatoms, Algae and the Environment: a tidbit

I first started working with algae in 1999, during my undergraduate work at Oklahoma State University. My advisor, Bill Henley was working on a project at the Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge to collect and identify the extremophile algae that lived there. In my years working there I became familiar with many of the algae taxa that inhabit inland saline habitats, especially the diatoms. Studying the diatom assemblages of the Salt Plains turned into my Masters Thesis and an enduring interest in diatoms. 

 

 A diatom of the genus  Navicula  collected in Peru. 

A diatom of the genus Navicula collected in Peru. 

Diatoms are of great global importance. To start with, diatoms are responsible for between 20-40% of the earths oxygen production. This fact alone should make you want to hug a diatom. However, this huge contribution to global oxygen supplies is just a byproduct (even considered to be a waste product) of photosynthesis. The primary objective of any diatom is to fix carbon dioxide into energy and biomass. The resulting biomass happens to be tasty and nutritious to many organisms, and is therefore the base of many aquatic food chains, especially in marine systems. So, much of that tasty seafood we love, was once an unpretentious diatom. 

Anyone can quite quickly grasp the difference between having potatoes and not having potatoes. It is somewhat more difficult to establish the consequences of, for example Cyclotella americana Fricke being extirpated from Lake Erie.
— Stoermer and Smol, The Diatoms: Applications for the Environmental and Earth Sciences

Sometimes the high productivity of diatoms can get out of hand, especially in response to nutrient pollution into aquatic habitats. As this story reports, we are seeing an unprecedented bloom of the toxin producing diatom, Pseudo-Nitzschia all along the Pacific coast. 

Our understanding of nature and the environment is incomplete, as stated by Stoermer and Smol in the above quote about potatoes and Cyclotella. And, the limited application of the knowledge we do have may be keeping us from making breakthroughs in areas of environmental remediation and environmental industrialism. 

Bulk Carotenoids

One metric used to indicate a physiological response in algal cultures is pigment concentration. Typically the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll a is used to indicate the health of a growing culture or as a measure of productivity in a population. I am extracting and measuring carotenoid production in Nannochloropsis salina to determine the relationship between culture management and physiological status. 96 well plates make the measurement of numerous samples a breeze. A standard curve can be created with Beta-Carotene. 

 

 Bulk carotenoids loaded into 96 well plate

Bulk carotenoids loaded into 96 well plate

Algae Pigments: Carotenoids as Indicators for Stress

One of my main research interests in terms of algae production is how culture management affects algal biomass and bio-compound yield. In response to environmental stress algae algae can change their biochemical composition drastically. For instance changes in light level can cause changes in pigment concentrations; changes in nutrient levels can cause changes in lipid content. These relationships are specific to each species of algae and also respond to environmental conditions in a complex way. 

I am currently looking at carotenoid profiles in N. salina in response to culture management strategies. This data combined with the lipid profiles will help design culture methods that can provide a predictable yield biomass/bio-compounds. 

Pigment extracts of N. salina ready for HPLC.

How do culture conditions change the composition of algae cells?

Part of my research at New Mexico State University involves determining how culture conditions affect the chemical composition of biomass in Nannochloropsis salina. I will be looking at both lipid profile and pigment content in relation to culture conditions (harvest and feeding regimes). This will be important to help determine culture management strategies that will help increase yields in production systems. 

More details to come as data comes in. 

GC samples awaiting analysis. 


Simple Solutions for Increased Algal Productivity

I firmly believe in the K.I.S.S method. Ockham, of Occam's razor surmised that in the absence of certainty, a hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be chosen. To me, this means that the simplest answer is the most correct. Although it is not easy to find the most elegant answer to a problem we must try. Since large scale production is still in its infancy, I've tried to determine how simplicity relates to yield of algae and algae products.

Often it seems like some people are employed to make things more difficult. Imagine how much time and resources would be saved, how many more projects would succeed if efficiency and efficacy were the rules. You get the idea, no matter which side of the line you stand. 

So, reducing complexity to simplicity is our goal. In terms of algal production the complexity is nature itself. All abiotic and biotic factors converging to influence the productivity and biochemical composition of a single cell. Much valuable work has been done studying how and where all of these data lie. But, we have yet been able to successfully apply this knowledge to meet our own estimates of algae production. 

My contention is that something as simple (yet with complex implications) as harvest and feeding regimes can have positive influences on algal biomass yields and biocompound production rates. If we can alter the culture management to influence our yields, within the range as defined by our system parameters, then we might be one small step closer to a operable production system. 

Now, look at this graph and see if you agree. 

Yield of algal cells in response to harvest volume, nutrient addition and media type. 

The above figure shows total number of Nannochloropsis salina cells yielded from an experiment with 12 treatments over the course of 25 days. The treatments are media, either f/2 or wastewater, added nutrients (+) or normal, and harvest volume (15, 30 or 45%). Letters above the bars indicate similarity (for shared letters) or dissimilarity. With this data set I am able to show that increasing harvest volume always results in increased yield, no matter the media or nutrient levels. This, I think, is simple and useful for anyone wanting to produce algae. That is the simple answer, and I will stop there. There is more to talk about in terms of harvest and feeding timing, and how this all influences bio-compound production. Keep thinking. 

Living Ink Technologies: A Green Greeting Card from Algae

A prototype greeting card from Living Ink Technologies of Fort Collins Colorado. 

It certainly is nice to see someone using a different approach in the algae industry. Living Ink Technologies of Fort Collins Colorado is a new startup in 2014 and are using their experience with algae to do something completely different, create a photosynthesizing greeting card. The company is currently in its development stage and has several card prototypes on its website. 

www.livinginktechnologies.com 

Living Ink Technologies on Facebook

I really like the idea behind these cards. The cards are stamped or painted with various strains of algae which can lead to different colors and different rates of growth. So a colorful living message and image can be revealed through time.

The founders of LIT are Scott Fulbright and Steve Albers, both graduate students at Colorado State University are researching various components of algal technology, including biofuel and pigment production. I wish these guys the best with their venture and I can't wait to order my first Dunaliella salina based greeting card. 

 

Scott Fulbright and Steve Albers of Living Ink Technologies

Peruvian Tomes

I was lucky enough to spend my 35th birthday in the Peruvian Andes. It was a trip to visit my sister-in-law in the remote town of Huraz for the last leg of her stint at a US based nonprofit. Before I left for this trip I inquired on algae forums about regulations for sampling and bringing back algae. Nothing helpful came from the listservs and I was about to give up. As luck would have it the recent Diatom Research had a paper describing some new species from wet walls and bryophyte communities from....Peru. ive always been lucky. After contacting the lead author (USA) and a co-author ( Peru) I determined that it was safe and mostly legal to sample in Peru and bring those samples back to the US. Several inernational borders a few snow storms later I'm back in the ol US of A with lots of samples and a few alpaca blankets. My 16 inch plankton net didn't set off a single alarm (surprisingly). Sampling diatoms was my main objective. I've always had an interest in cataloguing biodiversity and what better place to do it than the remote and unsampled Andes. The best sampling occured in the Llangenuco valley just below Huascuran one of South Americas highest peaks. I sampled; bryophytes, bromeliads, streams, wet walls, stagnate pools and glacial lakes and runnoff. I'm just starting today to process these samples. Unfortunately this biodiversity work is not part of my dissertation so has gone to the backest of burners. But today I just could not wait any longer. As I get images I will share. Diatomite!

Wired for Algae

Breadboard with wiring for temperature and light sensors. 

We live in a world where anyone with an internet connection can learn anything. I love this ability and take full advantage of it. I'm currently learning Spanish and a bit about electronics. I've been interested in using custom made electronics for algae production for several years but mainly relied on a friend to do all of the work. We were able to develop some concepts as well as some hardware for an automated bioreactor. The main goal was to have small scale (20 L) experimental systems that were fully automated.

I never thought it would be possible, but I have learned enough about electronics to make a few gadgets that read temperature and light and log that to the COSM website. I did get help from friends on this, but did my fair share to get it working. I cant wait to see where this goes. One of the main things I'm learning is that anything is possible. 

Contamination - Crop Management

I started culturing algae 14 years ago as an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University. Back then I cultured Synechococcus, Dunaliella and Picochlorum all to be used for experiments. The methods I used were meant to keep the algae uncontaminated by other algae and by bacteria and fungi. I spent lots of time sterilizing media and equipment and all the while working in the laminar flow hood. These are standard laboratory methods when working with algae. Over the years I've become sloppy, out of necessity. The work I have been doing over the past several years has focused on large scale algae production, where these laboratory methods would be difficult to implement. 

 Growth chamber with small scale algae cultures.  Haematococcus ,  Spirulina  and  Dunaliella  are shown here.

Growth chamber with small scale algae cultures. Haematococcus, Spirulina and Dunaliella are shown here.

My new philosophy concerning contamination, for large scale cultivation of algae is a "pest management" approach. Recently, while in Santa Fe for the weekend, the pump which supplies air for my greenhouse algae cultures went off due to a breaker being blown. My algae cultures were not bubbling for at least 24 hrs. After getting the pump going again the Nannochloropsis cultures were soon taken over by a form of cyanobacteria. This was a full takeover. Somehow, the conditions created by not bubbling the bioreactors favored the cyano's and they took off, while the Nanno lagged behind.

This is an example showing the fine line between a healthy algae production system and one on the edge of collapse. I am hoping to investigate in the future some of the mechanisms that send happy unialgal cultures over the cliff.

 Full blown takeover of bioreactors by cyanobacteria. 

Full blown takeover of bioreactors by cyanobacteria. 

Mayflower experiment

I am currently running an experiment in the greenhouse looking at how Nannochloropsis salina grows on wastewater. I am hoping to quantify the value of using wastewater for algal biomass production. So far, I feel like this topic has been raised and several good review papers produced on this topic. I am researching this topic because I have interests both in wastewater treatment and in algal biomass production. My experiments are ongoing, but in short, wastewater outperforms the standard media used to grow Nannochloropsis salina. I am not sure what to attribute this to; higher nutrients, positive bacterial interactions....? 

I am conducting this research at New Mexico State University in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department. 

Transient