Mark Edwards and Bigelow’s Michael Lomas on the Germplasm Network

  Algae Europe December 2022
Germplasm

Michael Lomas at Maine’s Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is leading NCMA’s efforts to develop a coordinated U.S. National Algal Germplasm Network.

by Dr. Mark Edwards

Q: How can we address biodiversity loss, increasing natural resource scarcity, climate chaos and food for refugees at the same time?

A: Create an Algal Germplasm Network 

Michael Lomas is the Director of the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota (NCMA) at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, a nonprofit research institute that studies the foundation of global health. He is leading NCMA’s efforts to develop a coordinated U.S. National Algal Germplasm Network.

Algae germplasm banking combines the accumulation of genetic knowledge of algal strains with their long-term storage and distribution requirements at different life stages. Developing stable aquaculture and germplasm banking techniques are essential for food security, conservation, and innovation. The accumulation of genetic knowledge among macroalgal cultivars and microalgal strains leads to these collections being called germplasms.

Dr. Lomas and the NCMA team apply over 40 years of expertise in algae production, cultivation, and research to help academic and industrial communities discover how algae can be utilized in groundbreaking endeavors. They collect, curate, bank, and distribute algae cultivars and strains to people with a wide range of biotechnology interests.

“Requests for cultivars and strains come from around the world by students, teachers, researchers, scientists, research labs, businesses, and curious individuals who request algae from our collection of over 3,000 strains,” he says.

Strain Matrix Germplasm

The following images illustrate some of the diversity in the NCMA collection of over 3000 strains. Top Row LtoR: Prorocentrum lima, Sahlingia subintegra, Porphyridium purpureum. Middle Row LtoR: Biddulphia tridens, Gambierdiscus carpenter, Akashiwo sanguinea. Bottom Row LtoR: Ulva ohnoi, Tychonema bornetii, Eucampia antarctica.

“Our algae collection serves as quality control gatekeepers on the curation, maintenance, and distribution of selected cultivars and algal strains,” says Dr. Lomas. “The current collections have been compiled by the slow accumulation of scientifically interesting strains, primarily arising from ecological and taxonomic studies.”

Programs like ARPA-E Mariner, which funded the isolation of thousands of macroalgae strains, have led to the rapid accumulation of targeted strains that are now being transitioned into algae germplasms at NCMA. CRISPER/CAS9 and other genetic editing tools are also creating large collections of mutants derived from a reduced number of parent strains, such as at the Chlamydomas Resource Center at the University of Minnesota.

Ecological threat

Algae are critical to human survival and offer the highest quality sustainable protein of any organism. They form the foundation of the aquatic food chains and provide food and nursery grounds for plants, invertebrates, and pelagic organisms (those found within the water column of an ocean).

Algae function in terrestrial freshwater and marine ecosystems as nutrient cyclers, ecological engineers, primary producers, habitat and structure providers and keystone species in both freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Many micro- and macroalgae species, and the organisms they support, are under threat from multiple stressors including warming temperatures, drought, pollution, overharvesting, and other anthropogenic disturbances that have major consequences for the structure and function of aquatic ecosystems’ health and structure.

Algae collections, especially those with novel strains, provide the basis for a vibrant academic research infrastructure, support scientific innovation, and benefits the blue economy with all its component parts.

Collections gain value when new genetic and phenotypic information is compiled. And biotechnologists discover new avenues such as selective breeding, mutagenesis, and new cultivators and strains created by genetic editing.

tree of life germplasm

Eukaryotic Tree of Life. NCMA strains can be found in the branches labeled by asterisks*. This classification of eukaryotes has been adapted from Adl et al (2012). Read the paper. Tree adapted by Ilana Gilg.

The advances associated with genetic information are profound. Modern industrial terrestrial agriculture arose from the formalization of the National Plant Germplasm System.

Algae Collections have publicly searchable catalogs and most have an online e-commerce platform to facilitate acquisition of curated strains. Further, most also have documents for material transfer agreements and licensing information for, and knowledge of, relevant regulations and legal support.

Why NCMA?

The NCMA team offers contracted algae research to help companies successfully enter the algae space and find the cultivars and strains that fit their needs. NCMA works with organizations to negotiate appropriate strain licensing agreements. Revenues from these licensing and revenue sharing agreements, as well as general sales of algae strains, are an essential part of developing a sustainable financial model for these public science assets.

NCMA is also one of three International Deposit Authority (IDA) entities in the US that is registered to accept biological materials under the Budapest Treaty for Utility Patent process, and thus can support the broader development of intellectual property.

Germplasm criticality

Despite the fact that these collections are mostly in the public domain, and vitally important, support for their continuing growth can be difficult. A 2020 National Academies’ report on biological collections concluded that, “Without necessary changes in support and organization, the prior and current investments in time, money, and staff resources for building the nation’s biological collections will be diminished, and their immense potential in supporting science, innovation, and education in the United States and elsewhere will be severely limited.”

What would a U.S. National Algal Germplasm Network look like?

The Algal Germplasm Network would connect currently disjointed algal germplasm resources into an interconnected, accessible system responsive to current and future national priorities. The network would orchestrate processes of cataloging, preservation and distribution of algal research outputs and their associated data.

It would be anchored by the current major U.S. algal collections, but open to new targeted collections. It would link collections with infrastructure support centers. There would be a strategic focus on expanding cryopreservation capabilities and research tools relevant to algae — in particular, those related to Genome-to-Phenome research.

The network would also modify existing germplasm database platforms to build a more integrated digital backbone across the collections.

Further development of algal resources and better understanding of how to apply them could help the U.S. to address increasing natural resource scarcity, climate chaos, water challenges and food shortages. As climate change alters the planet, the development of a National Germplasm Network could become a vital pillar of a National Security Strategy.

Examples of major algae collections and germplasm resources are publicly available at these sources.

Collection (since) Collection Name Holdings
UTEX
(1953)
University of Texas Culture Collection of Algae More than 3,000 unique strains of primarily freshwater algae comprising 6 kingdoms, with 1,469 named species spanning 565 genera
NCMA
(1981)
National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences More than 2,800 unique isolates of primarily marine microalgae and macroalgae comprising 50 families with 373 genera and more than 600 named species.
ATCC
(1925)
American Type Culture Collection Algae collection (63 strains of primarily green algae)
ARC
(2016)
Algal Resources Collection 353 strains of algae from 6 groups, with a strong focus on algae that can produce harmful compounds
CRC§
(1979)
Chlamydomonas Resource Center More than 3,000 physiologically unique strains of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii

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