New technology developed to detect the health of algae cultures

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Trained dogs are well known for using their keen sense of smell to identify explosives, contraband, and even certain types of disease. Being able to automate such sensing skills could be useful in a variety of environments, from airports to public buildings.

Today, chemists at the University of California at San Diego have developed technology to monitor the health of algae crops, one of the world’s most promising sources of sustainable products being developed to combat against global issues related to fossil fuel pollutants and product waste.

As described on October 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a diverse group of researchers – from undergraduates to senior professors – collaborated on a Department of Energy project to develop a real-time measurement technique that could save hundreds of millions of dollars. in algal biomass losses. From new biofuels that power vehicles to renewable plastics made from biodegradable polymers that remove waste in oceans and overcrowded landfills, algae is seen as the key to a sustainable product future.

“In order to have enough algae to supply all of these renewable materials – biofuels, bioplastics and nutraceuticals – we have to find ways to increase the production and yield of algae,” said Robert Pomeroy, lead author of the article. of PNAS, UC San Diego Department. Chemistry and Biochemistry. Pomeroy led the development of the technology with paper co-author Ryan Simkovsky. “Keeping algae healthy is one way to do it. We cannot afford to lose hectares of these crops.

The most economically competitive method of growing algae is by growing the tiny aquatic organisms in large-scale ponds. Such open biomass production, however, leaves their growth vulnerable to contamination by a range of microscopic pond invaders. Infectious organisms that graze on algae include viruses, bacteria, and fungi that can decimate algae cultures within hours.

The UC San Diego team has developed a new method for evaluating volatile gases, which are organic compounds often emitted by microbial processes. Using an instrument developed in the lab of Professor Kimberly Prather at UC San Diego, the researchers designed an automated way to perform real-time measurements of volatile gases using a known technique. known as Chemical Ionization Mass Spectrometry, or CIMS, a method previously used in medicine, defense and drug control.

The technology continuously monitors the normal health of algae by tracking their volatile gas emissions throughout their growth and flowering cycle. When invading organisms or predators attack and induce stress, it results in a change in volatile gas signatures. Using CIMS, scientists have shown they can instantly detect the disturbance and alert algae growers to take action to save the crop.

“If you knew there was an attack on the crop, insect or bacteria, then you could either mitigate the damage or remove the cap and harvest before there was any damage,” said Pomeroy, who works with chemist Mike Burkart and biologist Steve Mayfield. in the Food and Fuel for the 21st Century program. . “Bacteria are designed to attack and eat algae and their growth is exponential. You might be fine one day with beautiful green algae and the next day it’s a brown muddy mess. So it’s not like wasting 10 percent of your wheat crop – overnight you could lose the entire seaweed crop. “

The CIMS system, the researchers noted in their experiments, detected pasture contaminations with infectious organisms 37 to 76 hours earlier than traditional monitoring methods used for years, including microscopy and fluorescence. Further research will be conducted to further develop CIMS for algae field applications.

Professor Prather is the founding director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE), an NSF center for chemical innovation.

“At CAICE, one of our primary goals is to develop unique online analytical approaches to detect complex mixtures in biological and environmental systems,” said Prather. “This is a great example of how mass spectrometry that was developed for a different application, the measurement of oceanic gas phase emissions, is now being used to solve a problem of societal importance. There are countless applications in the environmental and health fields for how these online mass spectrometry measurements can be used to solve difficult problems. “

According to the researchers, CIMS could be adapted to monitor the health of other valuable sources, including cheese, beer, monoclonal antibodies and some meats grown in the laboratory, all of which are susceptible to attack by infectious organisms.

Reference: Sauer JS, Simkovsky R, Moore AN, et al. Continuous measurements of volatile gases as a detection of the health of algae cultures. PNAS. 2021; 118 (40). do I: 10.1073 / pnas.2106882118

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