by David Schwartz
Dr. Russell Chapman, Executive Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in San Diego, takes great joy in sharing his passion for algae with his students. Delighting crowds with his colorful, informative, and occasionally unusual approach to presenting the history and importance of algae in our lives, he drives home the fact that, for example, without algae we wouldn’t have lives in the first place. Nor would we have plants, nor oxygen in our atmosphere. His lectures on Algae: The World’s Most Important Plants are well worth the view, whether an algae veteran or a newbie to this industry.
After meeting “Russ” at the 2010 Algae Summit San Diego, we followed up with a conversation by phone to talk more about his fascination and involvement with algae education.
Q: What started your interest in algae?
A: As an undergraduate biology major at Dartmouth College, I had a specific interest in marine biology and it made sense to take the phycology course to learn about algae. The professor was Dr. Hannah T. Croasdale and she was one of the most outstanding educators, and outstanding individuals, I have ever met. She was one of the cofounders of the Phycological Society of America (the PSA, publishers of The Journal of Phycology) and was a Past President of the PSA. She taught a course that was as wonderful as it was unique and I quickly became interested in algae (the world’s most important “plants”) in general and the ultrastructure of algae in particular.
Q: Where did you think you would go with your interest in algae after Professor Croasdale’s course? And where did you go?
A: In her class I actually did a report on the ultrastructure of red algae. Ultrastructure was, back in the sixties, a fairly new area of investigation, and I was fascinated with the idea of studying it because it was brand new. There were also relatively few people who were doing it in the country, so it pretty much determined where I would apply to graduate school.
Q: So, what exactly do you mean by ultrastructure?
A: Ultrastructure refers to the level of observation that was made available when the electron microscope was developed. And in order to study biological samples with an electron microscope you have to section the material very thin. In fact, the sections are so thin that if you looked at them on edge, you couldn’t see them at all because they are below the resolution of a typical light microscope. So this whole process was, in a sense, made viable for biological research in the 1960s when the electron microscopes and the cutting devices were readily available and people went wild looking at tiny details within cells that had never been seen before. For example, a lot of people who have read about biology know about ribosomes. But ribosomes were never seen in a light microscope as such. Similarly, the chloroplast in algae is something that was seen at the light microscopic level, but the internal structures of the chloroplast were not very well understood until the electron microscope allowed us to see a lot more detail.
Q: What was it about ultrastructure that you felt was your unique area to investigate?
A: The original paper that I had reported on dealt with the ultrastructure of red algae and, specifically, a unicellular red algae called Porphyridium. This was one that could be grown like chlorella in a flask in a laboratory, so it was used for a lot of early biochemical and physiological work, and probably that was why it was one of the first ones to be examined with an electron microscope.
When I moved to LSU, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I began concentrating on the terrestrial alga, green alga that grows on tree trunks and leaves. The one I got started on was called Cephaleurous. This one and its close relatives have some unique properties, like abscision, which is comparable to the leaves falling off a tree, or fruit falling off a tree. They abscise. So that got me started on DNA and DNA sequencing. And that was basically what I was involved with until my retirement from LSU.
Q: When did you begin your relationship with Scripps?
A: Well, I retired from LSU on Friday, July 29, 2005. I flew to San Diego on Saturday, July 30, and I was in my office at Scripps starting my new job on Monday, August 1. So, I had two days of retirement, and that was quite enough!
Q: What was your initial assignment at Scripps?
A: Exactly what I’m doing now. My position is Executive Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC).
Q: You have been studying algae for many years, however many folks are just now jumping on board due to the buzz factor of biofuels and other highly touted algal qualities coming to light. What do you think is most important for people just putting algae on their radars to know before they become actively involved in the field?
A: Most people have had little opportunity to really learn much at all about algae. This statement is even true among professional biologist with masters and/or PhD degrees. In part, this lack of exposure has come with the de-emphasis of organismal biology in education around the world. Thus, most people do not realize that more than half of the oxygen they breathe comes from the algae. Similarly, they don’t realize that freshwater green algae conquered the land to give rise to all land plants. Thus, vegetarians and Vegans should thank the algae. And those of us who also like steak should say thanks too, since ultimately all animals rely directly or indirectly on plants for food and shelter.
Another fact that often amazes even well-educated and well-read people is that most of the gas and oil deposits that we are rapidly depleting were originally formed from algae. Finally, an area that might even vie with algal biofuels in terms of importance to humankind, is pharmaceutical compounds from algae. With increasing numbers of antibotic-resistant strains of bacteria cropping up in hospitals around the world and with our concerns about cancers, virus infections (including AIDS), and other major diseases, people should realize that useful compounds are being found in various kinds of algae.
Q: Is this what you are most interested in as an application for algae?
A: Having been influenced by wonderful colleagues, like Dr. Bill Gerwick, here at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I am most interested in, and excited about, the medicinal uses of algal compounds. There has been enough research to demonstrate that useful compounds are present in algae waiting to be found and developed into critically needed medicines. These exciting results are based on a tiny sampling of all the different species of algae that are out there in the real world. So, one can imagine hundreds of new, powerful pharmaceuticals. Alas, as I understand, finding an algal compound with antiviral or anticancer activity is one thing; and getting a pharmaceutical company to undertake the long and costly process of getting that compound on the market is another thing. But what an exciting opportunity for science to help humankind!
Q: You have studied many strains, and have looked at many applications and solutions posed by algae. What are some of the best pairings of strains and solutions to problems that you have come across?
A: Well I guess I must begin by correcting the question. Over more than three decades of phycological research, I have focused on ultrastructural studies and then molecular evolution studies of a wide range of algae. This very basic research, funded largely by the Systematics Program of the National Science Foundation was, and is, fascinating and important to our understanding of the algae. But, in this work, I was not looking at any applied applications, and, indeed, to the average person, this research could seem rather useless in terms of real world applications! The one exception to my focus on basic research occurred after the oil embargo of the 1970s when a colleague at Louisiana State University and I had a very small grant to look at one of the most famous species of oil-producing algae, that is, Botryococcus braunii. As you and many readers may know, this wonderful algal produces a very usable oil rather abundantly; however, the slow growth of the alga makes it rather intractable. I am sorry to report that we did not make much progress on finding a better strain (via induced mutations).
Q: What other strains are you aware of that provide, in your opinion, the most potential as a source for biofuels? And what are their major advantages and disadvantages with respect to cultivation and extraction?
A: Of the various approaches to algal biofuels, I personally favor the notion of finding and using natural algal strains that thrive in the conditions that will be used in large open ponds.
I am maybe naively pessimistic about the chances people will accept any genetically modified algae (or, completely “new” algae created by genetic engineering, a la Craig Venter’s company, and his exciting work) growing in acres and acres of open ponds.
Similarly, given millions of years of evolution, the natural algal strains may prove to be successful competitors. That is, in an open pond system, will an alga modified to grow faster and/or to produce more oil and/or to be easily harvested still out-compete some “weedy” natural strains? Sticking with my emphasis on natural strains, clearly algae that normally can bloom and achieve very high densities in nature should be likely candidates for high density algal biofuel systems.
Q: In your experience what common factors or changes have to be reckoned with when moving strains from a lab setting to an open pond setting, such as refiguring parameters for light, nutrients or other factors?
A: In general I think most people agree that that is a major consideration in terms of if, for example, the strains you’ve been using are ones that have come from many of the major culture collections. By definition you have strains that in some cases have been in a culture condition for 50 or 100 years. Therefore, these strains may perform beautifully in culture and in the lab, but they haven’t seen natural conditions for a very long time, and there may be various subtle changes that have occurred over the years in the physiology of these cultured algae that will then make them, in a sense, unfit for the real world.
So if they are going from the laboratory into an open pond situation, especially, there is a chance that there will be something that has made them unfit. That’s why I suggest that some people may wish to avoid strains that have been in culture for a very long time, and rather look to just isolate from the environment in which they’re going to be working.
Q: Where do you think the most research is needed in order to bring algae to the forefront as a competitive source for biofuel?
A: Basic research and genetic engineering to improve algal performance under appropriate conditions (i.e., the field conditions for the installation), is important both from a pure science and an exploration sense. However, what may be more important is to focus on the algal refinery concept and explore every conceivable marketable product and service that an algae farm could generate in addition to biofuel. Right now with known strains of algae with current levels of lipid production and protein production, would a multi-function algal refinery that “cleaned up” waste water (for a fee), produced biodiesel and chicken feed (or biogas or any other marketable product), and helped some companies reduce CO2 releases (for a fee) make money? I would like to see this question researched and resolved. My feeling is that perhaps right now in certain special niches, an algal refinery could make money while reducing CO2 emissions.
Q: Has biofuel research in algae come into your work at CMBC?
A: Yes, one of my duties includes working very closely with our Master of Advanced Studies Program, which is a unique 12-month program for mostly experienced students who have been out in the real world for three or more years since their bachelor’s degree. The program includes not only marine biology, but also policy and law, economics and communications. And in the context of this MAS program it turns out that of our 19 current students, two of them did projects dealing with algae and biofuels, and so we see that this topic which is of great interest to a lot of people around the world is also interesting some of our students.
One student was doing an analysis of U.S. vs. European policies, and the other student did a very sophisticated economic model that demonstrated under what conditions using algae for electricity generation would be feasible and profitable in Hawaii. This was where it was used as a source of biogas to generate electricity to reduce the consumption of diesel. In his fairly sophisticated model, he showed that, with a modest payment from the government, a powerplant burning algal biogas and much less diesel fuel than currently would reduce carbon emissions and produce the same amount of electricity that it is now being produced.
The exciting thing was that it showed that a carbon reducing, profit making, algal-based operation in selected sites, like an island situation where the cost of importing fuel is high, could work today. And many people are saying that we still have years and years away from an actual profitable algal fuel plant or farm. It was an interesting study and I’m delighted to see students taking up this topic.
Q: What do you think are the biggest misunderstandings out there regarding algae’s applications or potential?
A: Many people are simply unaware of the details, and of course that is where the devil is. People don’t necessarily know that algae in large open ponds face competition and predation, or that harvesting the algae economically in very large-scale operations can be a challenge. So getting back to the idea of “misunderstanding,” the biggest misunderstanding is that people think algae biofuels are a simple solution that can be implemented immediately and profitably.
Q: So, balancing the need for continual research with the need to develop biofuels quickly, how do you see the two best working together for a realistic solution?
A: My feeling really strongly goes with the notion of, given the overall competition and given the complexity of the interactions that occur in an open pond, the notion of isolating strains from not only comparable environments, but in some cases isolating them from the exact area in which your eventual facility will be located make a lot of sense. Of course, in some cases we’re talking about pretty hostile environments that might ultimately be used for algal production. But even in some of these desert environments there can be a lot of algae that are dormant in the soil or even in the rocks.
And so one could perhaps even apply that idea to pretty dry inhospitable environments because if there are a lot of algae in resistant stages in those desert areas, then when there are algal ponds there, if they’re open, as many people say they will be, those local strains are the ones that may invade the pond.
So if we can isolate some fairly useful algae from that area, that would be good for the ponds. Why not use them rather than bringing in some other alga which is ultimately going to have to compete with whatever is in the natural environment?
It’s interesting how many companies are on the ground working with existing strains and existing knowledge, hoping to be profitable within a few years. I guess we’ll all have a chance to see what happened, about five years from now.