AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: Algae

HABs – The Tiny Killers

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) occur when algae, which can range from microscopic, single-celled organisms to large seaweed, produce harmful toxins that grow in extremely high numbers and are in dense concentrations at the surface of lakes and in marine environments. These HABs are killing fish, mammals, and birds and may cause human illness or even death in extreme cases. In some instances, the algae blooms can be nontoxic but, in any event, consume all the oxygen in the water as they die off and decay, which can clog the gills of fish and invertebrates or smother corals. They are becoming a growing concern because they affect the health of humans, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. One research study indicates that the economic loss resulting from algal blooms, including regular phytoplankton algal blooms and what is now referred to as “harmful algal blooms or “HABs” formed by cyanobacteria, is on the order of approximately $4 billion annually.

River algae SichuanIn October 2019, a research article was published in the prestigious scientific journal; Nature, which documented a significant increase in phytoplankton (algal) blooms worldwide since the 1980s. This was reported by a detailed study of worldwide LANDSAT satellite photography utilizing three decades of satellite imagery. Using these satellites, 71 large lakes throughout the world were studied.

These phytoplankton populations form the basis of the food chain and contribute or are engaged in numerous biological, chemical, and biochemical processes that are important to everyday life on our planet. Many of these blooms can be caused by cyanobacteria which are prokaryotic cells that still can generate oxygen via photosynthesis, much like the eukaryotic microscopic plant cells, better known as phytoplankton. Some cyanobacteria can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen as well. Several cyanobacteria species also produce toxins as a bi-product of their metabolism that can adversely affect the liver, kidney, and nervous systems in humans and animals.

NOAA is at the forefront of HAB research to better understand how and why these blooms form and to improve the detection and forecasting of these seasonal events. The causes of this significant increase in algal blooms are somewhat unclear; however, it seems to be linked to precipitation, trends in fertilizer use, changing weather patterns, nitrogen concentrations, phosphorus concentrations, and perhaps climate change; as increases in temperature worldwide are occurring, but this data is inconclusive. Humans may also impact how frequently they occur and their intensity. Increased pollution, food web alterations, introduced species, water flow modifications, and climate change are all human activities that may play a role in creating these blooms.

These blooms concern me because, for the first time in many years, I have observed several algal blooms where I spend my summers on Upper Saranac lake, a freshwater lake in the Adirondack Park. While these are not HABs (harmful algal blooms) produced by cyanobacteria, they indicate changes in the lake’s biochemical, chemical, and perhaps physical parameters. The lake is monitored 24/7 via a telemetric sampling station that runs typical water quality parameters, which are being studied as we speak by local researchers. I feel we must continue to research the causes and effects of this situation to better manage algal blooms in the future. Can you think of any methods to reduce the likelihood of these Harmful Algal Blooms from forming?

Harmful Algal Bloom in Western Lake Erie, July 9, 2018

The Multi-Talented Algae

Many of our natural resources that our planet has gifted us are useful for alternative purposes, including scientific ones. Although some go overlooked, like algae, we continue to appreciate and learn how to use the resources we have. All algas, as plant cells, are proficient photosynthesizers. Algae is found all over the world, and is able to grow at incredible speeds, if placed in the right environment of light, water, and the required nutrients. A professor by the name of Pierre Crozet, who works at Sorbonne University in Paris, is steadily trying to place algae back on the biotechnology map. His research is mainly focused on microalgae, as it is easy to engineer and take care of. It requires less room and nutrients than that of land plants. As our world is struggling with sustainability, the science community is quickly coming up with solutions to aid our planet. Algae is one of the perfect candidates, as it can gain biomass only needing water, carbon dioxide, and nutrients. Crozet says he will soon be able to replace bacteria and yeast with algae, creating a more sustainable and reusable system. Unfortunately, algae’s track record as an alternative to both yeast and bacteria is relatively poor due to their slower growth rate. 

In the early 2010’s many startup companies started with the mission that Crozet is now set on. They claimed to be reaching a breakthrough which would offer algal biofuel as a replacement for the fossil fuels we use today. Those companies struggled and either went bankrupt or decided to change their scientific focus to something more plausible and cost effective. As the world becomes more desperate for alternative fuel solutions, algae might be the most realistic of them all. The only setback would be the slow growth rate, but if the world commits to algae as our fuel source, and access all our resources, it shouldn’t be long before we are totally regenerative. A research scientist at the NSW Department of Primary Industries named Hugh Goold said, “Investors have to know that you are going to produce a product cheaper than other people can. It isn’t worthwhile to produce something in algae instead of E. coli ‘just because.’” As we have seen in the past, this world is one that is most often not open to change, and completely relying on algae as our fuel source is a big, yet perfect one. 

Photobioreactor PBR 4000 G IGV Biotech

In addition to algae being used as a fuel source, companies all over the world are using or trying to implement the use of photosynthesizers into the manufacture of vitamins, food, fashion, and other products. Companies like Living Ink are trying to create an eco-friendly alternative to the printer ink we use everyday using cyanobacteria. Unilever, a mass food producer has taken the first step toward the use of algae by partnering with a company based in the UK called Algenuity. A company called Martek Biosciences uses algae to manufacture critical omega-3 fatty acids for dietary supplementation, especially for pregnant moms (like mine did!).  All of these companies are paving the way for changes that have taken a long time to figure out, but ultimately should help with the sustainability of our planet. With all these companies working to better the world with sustainable product manufacturing, hopefully we will be able to alter the fate that our planet is facing. 

Can Humans use Photosynthesis to “Breathe”?

Throughout our lives we learn that photosynthesis is a way plants “breathe”.  As learned in AP Biology class, plant cells use photosynthesis to make glucose, which is how they “eat”, and a byproduct of this is oxygen.  We also learned that photosynthesis takes place in the chloroplasts and the thylakoid disks, which have a large surface area, making them very productive for the cell.  The process of photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide and uses energy from the sun to produce oxygen and sugar.  While this process has been primarily used in plant cells, what if animal  cells could also use photosynthesis as a way to “breathe”?

German scientists have explored this question and found a way to “introduce algae into [tadpoles] bloodstream to supply oxygen”.  This idea began with a researcher who thought that frog nerve cells could be stimulated using photosynthesis. His hypothesis was tested by putting green algae into the hearts of tadpoles, turning their veins green as it was pumped to their brains.  The researches did this by temporarily pausing the firing of the nerves in their brains before adding the algae.  Only 15-20 minuets later the nerves regained functionality which was “about two times faster than…without the algae”.  The experiment proved that photosynthesis was a “quick, efficient, and reliable” to revive neural activity in tadpoles.


While algae use in tadpoles was proved effective, this does not mean it is a dependable for other animal species yet.  Work is still being conducted to implement this technology for the benefit of humans.  Scientists believe that the use of photosynthesis could potentially be used as a treatment for strokes or other medical situations where oxygen in the body is limited.  First, they need to understand if the use of photosynthesis works for prolonged periods of time, or just momentarily.  The side effects of a process like this also need to be explored.

While the research required is not complete to help humans “breathe” using photosynthesis, scientists are headed in the right direction of a scientific breakthrough that could potentially save lives and help change modern medicine.

It’s Time to Pay Attention to the Reef

You’ve heard time and time again about how coral reefs are dying, little by little- and that’s because it’s true. We can and should stop it; if we don’t, we risk everything we’ve ever known.

A healthy coral reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The warming of the oceans is caused by a number of things, almost all of them placing humans at fault. These elements include fossil fuel use, deforestation, and cement production. The creation of greenhouse gases warms the Earth itself, so far by almost 33º F since 1880. This includes the warming of the oceans. Melting glaciers (because of ocean warmth) increase sea levels and can even lead to more powerful and dangerous storms. The increase in CO2 in the water causes ocean acidification as well.

The warming of the oceans is caused by a number of things, almost all of them placing humans at fault. These elements include fossil fuel use, deforestation, and cement production. The creation of greenhouse gases warms the Earth itself, so far by almost 33º F since 1880. This includes the warming of the oceans. Melting glaciers (because of ocean warmth) increase sea levels and can even lead to more powerful and dangerous storms. The increase in CO2 in the water causes ocean acidification as well.

The ocean warming directly affects coral reefs through their symbiotic relationship with algae. The algae lives within the coral polyps, photosynthesizing and sharing energy with the coral. The easy access to sunlight coral provides is important to the algae. However, when the water gets too warm and too acidic, the algae gets expelled from the polyps. The coral then loses color as their skeletons, which cannot endure ecological changes, are exposed. This is coral bleaching.

Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The coral bleaching is a direct result of our rapid consumption of resources and production of greenhouse gases. A simple, small cutback on this consumption could solve so many of the earth’s growing problems. Turn off the lights. Use less water. Eat less red meat. Walk or bike instead of drive, just once a week. Small changes that affect the entire planet. The reefs are not only food for marine life, but they protect coastlines from flood/storm damage and provide employment for thousands. It doesn’t just affect wildlife. It directly affects a human’s quality of life. If you don’t do it for the environment, do it for the people.

The Environment’s New Clothes: Biodegradable Textiles Grown from Live Organisms

Research in the field of biodegradable materials shows promise to revolutionize the current fashion world. The dominant practice of immediately turning runway prototypes to intensely manufacture goods is an extreme threat to our environment’s future. The concept, commonly known as “fast fashion“, is one which requires vast quantities of clothing to be made for commercial purchase as quick as possible. This forces overproduction, where large corporations shoot individual purchase prices way down to tempt the consumer to buy clothes based on how little they cost. Making enormous quantities of clothes is necessary to make each trend profitable, but it is very destructive. Overproducing clothes requires huge amounts of energy, which uses fossil fuels and water, and results in a massive increase in land-fill waste, once the cheap clothes are out of style or can no longer serve their use. Today nine percent of the municipal solid waste in our landfills are clothing material according Scientific American. This issue of a rapid influx of new waste to landfills is compounded because the cheap materials used to make the clothes, traditionally plastic-based acrylics, are not biodegradable.

Clothing Production in Japanese Factory

New research has proven that it is possible to bioengineer materials from organisms such as bacteria, yeast, algae animal cells, and fungi, which leads us to believe there is a hopeful solution to the multitude of issues caused by “fast fashion’s” need for rapid overproduction. One professor’s work from the Fashion Institute of Technology,  Theanne Schiros is described in great detailed. She mainly works with algae for the production of her material. Her award-winning team, AlgalKit, has created a yarn-like substance by removing alginate, a polysaccharide in kelp, and making a water based gel, which is then died by non-chemical pigments, and is then dried to produce a colored fibrous material which is then woven into fabric. One of the large benefits from this process, as professor Schiros elaborates, is that these gels can be grown to fit molds, ultimately eliminating the massive amount of unused waste material that results from the hasty overproduction in today’s textile factories. Schiros also explains that her material is strong and flexible, which are two major criteria in choosing material to be mass-produced. In addition Schiros has looked into the possibility of synthesizing dyes for the material from bioengineered bacteria, which could supplant the use of toxic dyes normally tested on animals. Addressing both the issues of wasted resources, like energy, water, and material, and the growing problem of clogged landfills with non-biodegradable materials, algal-based fabrics in clothing shows great promise in changing the fashion industry for the betterment of our environment.

Kelp Forest used for Harvesting Alginate

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