Innovation That Matters

Large-scale algae crops grown in open ponds are vulnerable to invading viruses, bacteria and fungi | Photo source UC San Diego

Technology can save algae crops

Agriculture & Energy

A new use of older technology could vastly reduce losses of algae crops to infection

Spotted: From biologically-based fuels to biodegradable plastics, algae is becoming a key component of a future free from fossil fuel-based plastics. In order to produce renewable materials, algae is “farmed” – most often in large-scale open ponds. While economical, this method leaves algae vulnerable to contamination by viruses, bacteria and fungi. Infections can destroy entire crops in a matter of hours. Now, a new technology may allow cultivators to save their algae from such attacks.

The technology was developed by researchers at UC San Diego, and involves the use of chemical ionisation mass spectrometry (CIMS) to monitor algae crops for signs of attack by contaminating organisms. Using an instrument developed in the lab of Professor Kimberly Prather, the team devised a way to perform automated real-time measurements of volatile gases.

The algae can be continuously monitored by tracking emissions of these gases throughout the growth and bloom cycle. When invading organisms or predators attack, there is an immediate change to the volatile gas signatures. The cultivator can be informed the instant this happens, allowing them to take immediate action to save the harvest.

Chemist Robert Pomeroy, lead author of a paper the team published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explained the value of fast action, “If you knew there was an attack on the crop, from insects or bacteria, then you could either mitigate the damage or pull the plug and harvest before there’s any damage done. Bacteria are built to attack and eat the algae and their growth is exponential. You could be fine one day with nice 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.”

While perhaps not the most glamorous crop, algae is becoming an extremely important one. It is renewable and sustainable, and has been used to make products ranging from lipstick to running shoes and even food. As the uses of algae expand, it is going to be vital to protect these vital crops.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

Email: rpomeroy@ucsd.edu

Website: chem.ucsd.edu

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