MSU Kramer lab graduate student, Chris Hall

MSU Kramer lab graduate student, Chris Hall, takes a sample of algae from an ePBR. Photo: MCH

by Sara Matthews-Kaye

Plant scientists at Michigan State have become assembly line workers for the production of what they call ePBR’s—laboratory-based algae photobioreactors that mimic the outdoor environment, simulating both sunshine and pond water, and still providing researchers a controlled environment to study algae.

With MSU biophysicist David Kramer and others, algal biologist Benjamin Lucker developed the ePBR to address laboratory challenges he faced several years ago while performing algal biofuel research in the Pacific Northwest. “I was working as a kind of prospector, isolating species, and working with regional companies,” Lucker said. “And what I realized was that, when I would take species back into the lab, I was growing them in conditions that had no relevance to what they’re being selected for.”

Those conditions include temperature, light, water pH, and carbon dioxide levels—all conditions that the environmental photobioreactor can control and measure.

The ePBR is a tubular container made from polycarbonate, a light-weight and durable hard plastic, and is surrounded by a metal jacket that controls the temperature. The top of the instrument provides light.

“It’s a slice of a pond,” said Mimi Hall, CEO of Phenometrics Inc, the tech company manufacturing and selling the device. The sun is at the top, and the bottom is pond water where the algae sit at the same depth as they would outdoors.

“We created a tool to bring the outdoors, indoors,” Hall said. “It’s a tool that can create baseline scientific conditions for the study of algae. A computer sets the conditions in the container, and other labs can dial those in.”

A laboratory’s air quality and room temperature can unintentionally affect the growth of algae and the study results. The e-PBR allows laboratories to create identical growing environments and comparable data. “It’s creating a standard operating platform for algal research,” Lucker said.

He and others in the lab have been building 40 environmental photobioreactors destined for Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO.

At Donald Danforth the device will characterize algae strains. That helps study how different types of algae react under the same condition, or how one type reacts under a variety of conditions.

Ivan Baxter, a research computational biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and an assistant member and principal investigator at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, is studying how the environment affects the growth and oil content of certain strains.

“The ePBR will make it easier to vary the environment to see algal responses to temperature and light,” Baxtor said. “It creates a tightly controlled environment.”

Lucker believes scientists will now be able to study algae in ways no one has before. “There are a lot of models for algae’s role in sustainability,” Lucker said.