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The Art of Computing Algae


Scott Fulbright, a trainee in the National Science Foundation Integrative Education Research Traineeship program in Multidisciplinary Approaches to Sustainable Bioenergy at Colorado State University, has recently isolated and identified a detrimental bacteria strain from an industrial algae production system. This is the first research finding of its kind that will help scientists not only understand algal production systems’ behavior, it will have a large impact on developing pest management discoveries for algal systems. Scott is advised by Dr. Ken Reardon in the Chemical and Biological Engineering department and Dr. Graham Peers in the Department of Biology, both at Colorado State University, and Dr. Rob Knight in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of Colorado.

Scott also has a long-standing relationship with Solix Biofuels. Scott started at Solix three years ago when he became a graduate student at Colorado State University when this research idea came about to work on developing a rapid and usable method of growing algae for biofuel use at large scales. At the time, engineers at Solix were designing algal bioreactors and noticed that even with algal raceways that contain the algae to help them grow and keep their environment consistent or homogeneous, some algae would grow better than others and some would not fare well at all, and this could differ between raceway systems. This was not expected, but after some preliminary research, the differences seemed to be linked to bacteria. These observations were notable because it gave rise to Scott’s research of investigating bacterial strains in algal communities within production systems. While it is known that bacteria can grow with algae in the presence of bacteria, little is known about what specific bacteria grow with specific algal strains. Scott’s research investigated these questions to study what bacterial phyla are present in algae cultures. Furthermore, a critical question was, how do bacterial communities influence algal growth? Algal growth is particularly important to biofuel production because the lipids (oils) from algae can be converted to a variety of biofuels.

Preliminary data revealed that from only seven samples from algal cultures, 700 different bacterial types were found. This suggests that as numbers of algal colonies samples increased, the potential number of bacterial strains to find and then test would become quite large. Scott then turned to metagenomics to provide a means for rapidly profiling complex systems to catalogue community structure and have the ability to analyze the biochemical pathways to understand how bacterial communities influence algae growth and lipid production. Since this approach generates a large amount of data, it was necessary for Scott to learn large-scale bioinformatics, or the study of analyzing and organizing large amounts of biological data. He did this during an NSF IGERT-supported internship at the Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology in China. Bioinformatics is a separate and rising interdisciplinary field that can pair biologists with computer scientists and statisticians. Biologists are interested in biological questions and understanding, computer scientists develop software to be able to support and analyze the large data set, and statisticians embed statistical analyses capability into the software all to generate useful biological knowledge.

Since his internship, Scott enlisted Dr. Rob Knight at the University of Colorado to be part of the research group. Dr. Knight’s group studies large data sets of bacteria, and his expertise in analyzing large data sets has helped Scott immensely. Also, Scott started collaborating with Adam Robbins-Pianka, a graduate student in the Computer Science Department at the University of Colorado. Adam’s work primarily focuses microbial ecology and focused on how microbial interactions can lead to advancements in biofuel production. Adam helps Scott with the computer science part of his research and Scott mentors Adam on his microbial ecology work. Through this approach, Scott has been able to catalogue thousands of bacterial types in multiple algal cultures from Solix.

Scott’s results are very exciting because he can start to see that while some types seem to be beneficial to the algal health and growth, others have intermediary effects, and some have deleterious effects on algal health and growth in environments with different temperatures and sunlight amounts. If the goal is to produce a consistent system that produces algal lipid amounts to support high scale fuel production, then knowing what helps and hinders the important characteristics to high lipid production is critical. Scott has now identified a detrimental bacterial strain from an industrial algae production system and will publish an article this summer reporting on this finding. Since Solix is looking to produce large scale fuel products from algae, Scott research has now been propelled to continue not only cataloguing bacteria types in different cultures, but also to link together which types are present when the algae cultures are healthy with high amounts of cells that contain lipids to use as fuels. Ultimately, Scott is interested in cataloguing those strains that are beneficial and deleterious to help companies like Solix increase their ability to grow large amounts of algae in ecosystems that are stable on a large scale, which is crucial for algae becoming a viable fuel alternative. Conversely, cataloguing those that are deleterious will help researchers create management strategies to reduce or eliminate these types from affecting the ecosystem, while continuing to increase our understanding of the complex web of interactions between bacteria and algae.

Address Goals

Scott Fulbright’s research definitely represents great discovery for the bioenergy science and fuels market. His discovery was a novel observation that allows scientists to understand more about the complex network of players in algal production systems. We now know that the narrow focus specifically on algae growth needs to change to a broader lens so that other organisms that play interactive roles in the health and stability of the systems are addressed as a more whole system. As most things in biology, there is never just one player and moving towards ecosystem management in algal production systems will be pivotal for the biofuel community both in the US and globally. As the move toward low-carbon fuels continues, it will be important to have an alternative source of fuel that is stable and can produce on large scales to feed fuel and energy demands both domestically and internationally. Scott’s research will help algae move towards the forefront of being a usable and viable fuel source encouraging scientists to learn more about the entire system tapestry, how these interactions affect algal growth, and where to focus future research to continuously enhance the science of using algae for fuel.

Scott’s research has brought together researchers from different academic backgrounds, skills, and interests. From working with engineers at Solix, to working with bioinformatics specialists trained in biology and statistics, to working and mentoring a student in computer science, Scott has widened his scientific knowledge base and has done the same for others to learn from him as a biologist. This relationship has brought together researchers who might otherwise not have met to work on a common question to ultimately understand the world better, but also to address global issues that are arising at a quick pace. This type of work mandates that researchers learn to talk to each other, respect the different research values, and then produce something that is relevant to society and can be communicated well. Research like this will help pave the way for groups of scientists to come together for a common societal good and hopefully expand the scientific literacy of all citizens because they addressed society’s needs.