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Too hot to handle

Oban, 24 Jan 2014 – “Publish or perish”: academics need little reminder of the significance of a strong and long publications record to promote their careers. Full of the freshness of youth, Oban student Daniel Burt (17) seems to have taken note and has begun his publication list already.

In a recently published academic paper, Future algal biofuels: implications of environmental temperature on production strain selection, Daniel is credited as one of the co-authors and Oban High School is listed as his affiliated institute.

Daniel’s involvement in the paper, which was published in the International Journal of Ambient Energy, was an upshot of his Advanced Higher Biology investigation project and his interest in microorganisms.

In the autumn of 2012, while a final year student at Oban High School, Daniel contacted Dr John Day, the head of the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa (CCAP) group at SAMS, for advice and possible use of equipment for his biology investigation project.

One area that CCAP is exploring is the mass production of microalgae to make biofuel. Microalgae are microscopic, unicellular algae that exist individually, in chains or in groups. They have high growth rates and high rates of solar energy conversion, meaning that they could potentially form the basis of the next biofuel revolution.

Daniel’s Advanced Higher project looked at the impact that climate change might have on the grazing dynamics of protozoans and the implications that this might have on producing microalgae as future biofuels.

Protozoans including ciliates, amoebae and heterotrophic dinoflagellates, have the potential to devastate mass-cultures of microalgae in open-pond production systems, which are the systems likely to be used in large scale production of microalgae.

“We had done a bit of work in house on the detection of grazers, but had not considered the implications of climate change previously,” said Dr John Day, head of CCAP.

Over a six week period Daniel spent several hours a week working in the CCAP labs with his model oil producing organism, Nannochloropsis oculata. This species of microalgae originates from UK waters where temperatures usually range from 10-15°C. In his experiments he increased the temperature to 20°C and then 35°C — temperatures typical of a land-based environment where a facility for the mass-production of microalgae could be potentially located.

As Daniel hypothesized, raised temperature (eg 20°C) increased productivity and yield, but high temperatures over 30°C invariably resulted in cell death of this alga.

“Daniel did good work, undertaking lab-work meticulously, thus generating a publishable data-set,” said Dr Day.

“In the end it turned out that the exploitable data was not from the main thrust of the grazing work, as I had anticipated, but was effectively the non-grazing control data from the study.”

“At present Dr Michele Stanley and I are working on the implications of this for a much more focussed study that we hope will generate a significant publication by the middle of this year,” Dr Day added, showing how Daniel’s work for his Advanced Higher will inform future work too.

CCAP maintains a collection of over 3000 strains of marine and fresh water algae, protists and seaweed for the benefit of knowledge, understanding and research. The group supports a wide range of research at SAMS including biotechnology, biodiversity, polar science and algal biofuels.

Daniel is now in his first year studying a BSc in Marine Science with the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI), based at SAMS.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working on my project at CCAP,” said Daniel, who was “surprised” when Dr Day asked to use data he’d generated for his advanced higher investigation in a paper that could be published, and “astonished” when he heard it had indeed been published.

“I hope to use this as a first step in my career, which I’m building with my degree course at SAMS UHI and which could lead to further opportunities like this,” added Daniel, who isn’t waiting for the tide.


Click here for the paper Future algal biofuels: implications of environmental temperature on production strain selection

Click here for a related paper Early detection of protozoan grazers in algal biofuel cultures

Click here for the CCAP collection

And here for Oban High School

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