Stressing Out My Algae

Emily Spiegel, Bryn Mawr College

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One intern’s perspective on lab work, South Carolina, and the coolest organisms in and out of water: phytoplankton.

 

The lab itself is large, packed to bursting with equipment, boxes, cabinets, monitors, and glassware. An antechamber acts as a sterile room for the most delicate of procedures, demanding precision and care. Many things reside in this room, but never quiet. The constant whirling of a machine’s fan, the hum of a freezer housing samples from a time beyond easy recollection, the typing of a research assistant hunched over innumerable data sheets…all these and more cut through the quiet throughout all hours of the day and night.

 

And at the heart of it all is the algae.

 

Small, marine microorganisms constituting a larger class known as phytoplankton, algae are the unsung heros of the environmental world. Energy, or the basic ability to do work, is the key to survival, growth, and reproduction. Without it you (and your genes) aren’t going anywhere. Algae harness the energy readily available from sunlight and convert it into a useable currency in a process known as primary production. This energy is then distributed to the many higher animals that eat them. They are the foundation of the marine food web and of the world’s energy supply, contributing to 45% of the planet’s primary production (Brierley 2017). In short, algae are cool.

So cool in fact, I’ve decided to spend my entire summer studying them. More specifically, I’ll be studying patterns of their reproduction and growth. A grad student running an experiment in this lab last year got unexpected results when she raised algae in 24 hours of continuous light instead of the normal 12 hours of light:12 hours of darkness she had followed previously.  Despite a limitation in the nitrogen added to these samples, which typically inhibits growth, the populations grown in 24 hours of light were able to grow successfully. So researchers went looking for answers.

One potential explanation is that the continuous light conditions caused the induction of sexual reproduction in the algae samples. Algae, like the rest of us, don’t like to be stressed. And being constantly exposed to light, which they automatically begin to utilize for primary production, is very stressful. It’s kind of like giving a kid a bunch of candy bars. A little is nice, a lot induces a sugar high and headaches for anyone within a 20m radius. The algae have too much energy and so they start to adjust their behavior to accommodate for the stressful conditions. One accommodation is sex. That’s right, stress out your algae and they might just turn on the Marvin Gaye and set the mood. Normally the species I’m studying (Fragilariopsis cylindrus, or just Frag for anyone without a PhD) reproduces asexually allowing high growth rates within the population. My lab is also curious as to whether low light conditions (a cycle of 6 hours of light and 18 hours of darkness) might be equally stressful to the algae and cause a similar response.

This is where I come in. This summer I’ll be exposing algae to conditions of varying light and nutrient stress in order to determine if stress actually does cause them to start reproducing sexually. Along the way, we’ll keep track of growth rates by measuring biomass, or the amount of live material within a sample. This can be measured by a variety of cool devices which tell me the number of cells in a particular volume of sample and the amount of chlorophyll being utilized in that sample. Chlorophyll is a component of the cycle of photosynthesis and is therefore a measure of the primary producers (i.e. the algae) in the sample. Eventually I’ll also run genetic analyses, tracking the utilization of genes involved in sexual reproduction as a way to determine if the algae are reproducing sexually instead of asexually.

All in all, it’s bound to be an interesting summer. Full of days at the beach, early mornings with a culture counter, and lots and lots of algae.

 

I’d like to acknowledge the entire DiTullio/Lee lab at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration as well as the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program organized by the College of Charleston Grice Marine Laboratory. This project would not be possible without the support and guidance from these institutions and individuals. 

 

Works Cited

Brierley, Andrew. “Plankton.” Current Biology Magazine 27 (2017): 478-83.

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What’s living in the sand?

Jessie Lowry, Coker College

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Visible microalgae seen on the surface of wet sand at Folly Beach.

Next time you go to the beach this summer, I want you to think about the sand that you are walking on. Did you know that there are tons of microscopic photosynthetic organisms, aka microalgae, that live on the surface of sand? Before this summer, I didn’t know about these organisms either. Here is a picture of visible microalgae on the surface of the sand. Look for this next time you’re at the beach!

Microalgae communities in sand are made up of single-celled eukaryotic algae and cyanobacteria living in the top several millimeters of the sand (Miller et al., 1996). These organisms play important roles in ecosystem productivity and food chain dynamics, as well as in sediment properties, such as erodibility (Miller et al., 1996).

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Dr. Craig Plante and Jessie Lowry collect samples of sediment from Folly Beach. Photo credit: Kristy Hill-Spanik.

I am studying these microalgal communities and what factors influence community structure. For example, does pH, salinity, nutrients, or grain size shape microalgal community structure? Or does geographic distance shape communities? To answer these questions, I am collecting samples from Kiawah Island, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, and Pawley’s Island, SC. We are measuring environmental variables at each location, and using molecular tools to study microalgal community structure.

I am extracting the DNA from samples collected, amplifying specific regions from these samples using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and then we will be getting these regions sequenced using Ion Torrent technology. We will then use QIIME to determine how similar these benthic microalgal communities are.

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Jessie Lowry preparing samples for PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, which is used to make millions of copies of a piece of DNA.

Diatoms, a group of microalgae, have been proposed as bioindicators of environmental health (Desrosiers et al., 2013). Bioindicators are really cool because instead of telling a snapshot of an environmental condition, such as pH, temperature, or amount of oxygen in an environment, biological indicators reflect those changes and can give an idea of how the ecosystem is being affected. This research will further our knowledge of what factors shape benthic microalgal communities, and give a better understanding of these organisms as a potential bioindicator. In addition, this research will add to knowledge about the distribution of microorganisms, which is also not fully understood.

Learn more:

http://web.vims.edu/bio/shallowwater/benthic_community/benthic_microalgae.html

http://www.aims.gov.au/docs/research/water-quality/runoff/bioindicators.html

References

Desrosiers, C., Leflaive, J., Eulin, A., Ten-Hage, L. (2013). Bioindicators in marine waters: benthic diatoms as a tool to assess water quality from eutrophic to oligotrophic coastal ecosystems. Ecological Indicators, 32, 25-34.

Miller, D.C., Geider, R.J., MacIntyre, H.L. Microphytobethos: The ecological role of the “Secret Garden” of unvegetated, shallow-water marine habitats. Estuaries, 19(2A): 186-212.

Acknowledgements

Thank you so much to my mentors Dr. Craig Plante, and Kristy Hill-Spanik. This research is funded through the National Science Foundation and College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Lab.

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