by Trista Talton / CoastalReview.org
“What differentiates the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s (UNCW) collection from other microalgae culture collections is its ever-expanding catalog of harmful microalgae cultures,” explains research professor and ARC Director Catharina Alves-de Souza. Dr. Alves-de Souza is responsible for organizing, updating, and making the collection accessible to researchers around the globe. Her work is a key piece of a larger puzzle in the study of microalgae species that cause harmful algal blooms.
Now, a nearly $600,000 grant to the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Algal Resources Collection (ARC) will help her help scientists investigate the cause of harmful algal blooms. “We can determine the identity of the species by using DNA. We can determine whether they’re toxic or not,” she says. “And we can also, with the help of chemists, determine which toxins they produce. We can get a lot of information that helps us understand what the other scientists are getting from the field samples.”
The three-year, $581,765 grant from the National Science Foundation she was recently awarded will cover the cost of a new machine that will expedite the identification process of microalgae species. Based on imaging flow cytometry, the machine is basically an automated microscope equipped with a high-speed camera that can be trained with artificial intelligence to identify various microalgae species.
“These machines allow us to look for a lot of samples from blooms in a short period of time to determine which species are present in the samples,” Dr. Alves-de Souza said. “This also allows us to check for contaminants in the culture. That’s going to be very important because then we are going to make this information available and all the researchers, not only in the United States, but also in institutions in other countries, will be able to use this same information, and the same protocols.”
She is collaborating with Nathan Hall, a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences, to investigate the effects of harmful algae on oyster larvae. Dr. Hall refers to himself as a phytoplankton ecologist, one trying to unlock the mysteries of these microscopic organisms that form the base of the food chain in the ocean.
“There’s hundreds of species of phytoplankton out there in the water,” he said. “What makes certain ones do well in certain areas at certain times of the year is a question I think a lot of phytoplankton ecologists have and it’s an important question, especially when one of those species does well as toxic, for example. To do that, first you have to know what species are there. In some cases, you really have to be able to culture it to tell what’s there. That’s one of the things Catharina’s collection is doing.”
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