Algae Research Receives NSF Funds

College Biologist Earns $2.7 Million in NSF Funding for Green Algae Research

Microscope image of green algae
A green alga from the Amazonian rain forest being studied by the research team of Dr. Juan Lopez-Bautista in the Department of Biological Sciences.

From the April 2013 Desktop News | Dr. Juan Lopez-Bautista, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, has built a career studying algae. He is now the principal investigator in a $2.76 million National Science Foundation research project designed to discover and describe various types of green algae. Lopez and his research team hope to develop a comprehensive understanding of these microscopic organisms, including how scientists believe they fit into the world’s evolutionary ladder.

The project, which is funded through August 2015, comes on the heels of a similar NSF Tree of Life project Lopez led on red algae. The project also supports the training of post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates at UA and four other institutions nationwide.

To conduct the research, Lopez has federal documentation that permits him to import samples from Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. The samples range from large specimens, dried and mounted on display paper to microscopic drops at the bottom of a culture tube.

Lopez said that algae are economically significant. They are found in many food products, used in various household items including clothing and cosmetics, and are important to the food web. It is unwise to ignore them, he said.

“One may think most of this work is purely taxonomical and doesn’t have too much application, but many algae that are non-native to the United States have been found in Alabama,” Lopez said. “Algae naturally distributed in Japan and China has been found in Mobile Bay, growing very abundantly.”

These non-native species do not have natural enemies, such as pests, here to help in their control, Lopez said.

“They are free to grow and can displace many native species. And this can be very dangerous because the native species are the ones that feed the fisheries in the region.”

The non-native species’ introduction appears recent and not yet extensive enough to cause alarm, but should be monitored, Lopez said.

There are at least 14,000 described species of green algae worldwide, and, in this project, scientists have selected some 500, representing the major groups, for closest study, Lopez said.

The researchers extract the DNA from the received samples to amplify the genes in which they are most interested and then sequence those genes. More recently Lopez has sequenced whole algal genomes. Results from the UA laboratory are combined with results from the other four institutions involved in the project and fed daily into a secure web site.

The end result shows researchers which algae are most closely related. Through meetings and publications, this information will be made available to scientists and the general public around the globe.