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. 

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

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. 

 

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. 

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.