Chemists are developing new technology that detects the health of algae plants

A new technology developed at UC San Diego uses chemical ionization mass spectrometry to alert algae growers when the signature of volatile gases changes and enables them to harvest algal plants when attacked by contaminating organisms. Photo credit: UC San Diego

Trained dogs are known to use their keen sense of smell to detect explosives, contraband, and even certain types of diseases. The ability to automate such detection capabilities could be useful in a number of environments, from airports to public buildings.

Now, chemists at the University of California at San Diego have developed technology to monitor the health of algae cultures, one of the world’s most promising sources of sustainable products being developed to address global problems caused by pollutants from fossil fuels and product waste.

As detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct. 1, a diverse group of researchers – from college students to senior faculties – collaborated on a Department of Energy project to develop a real-time measurement technique that valued hundreds of millions of dollars could save in the event of algae biomass losses. From new bio-based fuels that power vehicles to renewable plastics made from biodegradable polymers that dispose of litter in the oceans and cluttered landfills, algae are considered key to a future of sustainable products.

“To have enough algae to supply all of these renewable materials – biofuels, bioplastics and nutraceuticals – we need to find ways to increase algae production and yield,” said Robert Pomeroy, senior author of the PNAS paper for the Department of. of UC San Diego Chemistry and Biochemistry. Pomeroy led the development of the technology along with co-author of the paper Ryan Simkovsky. “Keeping algae healthy is one way of doing this. We cannot afford to lose acres of these plants.”

The most economically competitive way to cultivate algae is to grow the tiny aquatic organisms in large “ponds”. However, such open biomass production makes its growth susceptible to contamination from a number of microscopic pond invaders. Infectious organisms that graze on algae include viruses, bacteria, and fungi that can decimate algae cultures within a few hours.

The team at UC San Diego has developed a new method for evaluating volatile gases, which are organic compounds that are often emitted by microbial processes. Using an instrument developed in the laboratory of Professor Kimberly Prather at UC San Diego, researchers developed an automated method for making real-time measurements of volatile gases using a technique known as chemical ionization mass spectrometry, or CIMS, a method previously used in medicine , Defense and drug enforcement.

The technology continuously monitors the normal health of algae by tracking their volatile gas emissions during their growth and flowering cycle. When invading organisms or predators attack and cause stress, it changes the volatile gas signatures. Using CIMS, the scientists showed they could spot the disruption immediately and alert algae growers to take action to save the harvest.

Chemists are developing new technology that detects the health of algae plants

Large-scale algae cultures are grown in open channel ponds, which make them susceptible to invading viruses, bacteria and fungi that can quickly destroy the plants. Photo credit: UC San Diego

“If you knew the crop was being attacked by insects or bacteria, you could either mitigate the damage or pull the plug and harvest before damage occurs,” says Pomeroy, who works with chemist Mike Burkart and biologist Steve Mayfield Program “Food and Fuel for the 21st Century”. “Bacteria are made to attack and eat the algae, and their growth is exponential. One day you might be fine with beautiful green algae and the next day it’s a brown, muddy mess. So this is not like losing 10 percent of your wheat crop overnight, you could lose the entire algae crop. “

The CIMS system, the researchers found in their experiments, detected grazing contamination from infectious organisms 37 to 76 hours earlier than traditional monitoring methods that have been used for years, including microscopy and fluorescence. Further research is being carried out 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.

“In CAICE, one of our main goals is to develop unique online analytical approaches for the detection of complex mixtures in biological and environmental systems,” said Prather. “This is a great example of how mass spectrometry, developed for a different application, measuring emissions in the gas phase, is now being used to address a socially relevant problem. There are endless environmental and health applications as these online mass spectrometry measurements can be used to solve challenging problems. “

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

The full list of PNAS research co-authors includes Jon Sauer, Ryan Simkovsky, Alexia Moore, Luis Camarda, Summer Sherman, Kimberly Prather, and Robert Pomeroy.

New method makes it easier to predict algal blooms

More information:
Jon S. Sauer et al., Continuous Measurements of Volatile Gases as Detection of Algal Plant Health, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.2106882118 Provided by the University of California – San Diego

Quote: Chemists Develop New Technology to Detect Algal Plant Health (2021, October 4), accessed October 4, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-10-chemists-technology-algae-crop-health. html

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