Krystyna Ponikla and Sarah Challenger in the new culture collection room.

Krystyna Ponikla and Sarah Challenger in the new culture collection room.

In New Zealand is an internationally significant collection of microalgae cultures known as the Cawthron Institute Culture Collection of Microalgae (CICCM). The CICCM was recently moved into a new home in Cawthron Institute’s recently built Envirotech building in central Nelson. The laboratory includes cabinets that are purpose-built to hold the tropical collection and LED lighting to create optimum growing conditions for the collection’s microalgae.

From just a handful of microalgae, the CICCM now houses about 300 cryopreserved strains of toxic microalgae and cyanobacteria, along with a living collection of another nearly 300 microalgae that includes representatives from most of the world’s toxic algae species. Of national and international significance, the collection is part of the Asia Oceania Algae Culture Collection network.

Cawthron research scientist Dr. Lesley Rhodes says the CICCM is essential to the government-funded Safe New Zealand Seafood Programme which is led by Cawthron Institute in partnership with AgResearch, Plant & Food Research, and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). “The program provides research that safeguards and promotes the safe reputation of New Zealand seafood and the collection provides the producers of the toxins being studied or produced as chemical standards for monitoring,” she says.

As part of a robust monitoring system, the CICCM is used to train laboratory staff in identifying algae in routine water samples, giving the Ministry for Primary Industries, public health officials and others the tools they need to identify harmful algal blooms. This training also includes identifying fresh water bodies that may be contaminated by cyanobacteria.

CICCM samples are in constant demand by researchers around the world, including the United States, Australia, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom. “The samples have led to a greater understanding of toxic microalgae and that is already having huge implications for industries like aquaculture,” says Dr. Rhodes. “For example, the collection has assisted researchers in improving the New Zealand mussel industry’s monitoring programs which has allowed for more geographically targeted temporary closures and has meant savings for the industry.”

The collection also includes microalgae with the capability to produce valuable compounds — some of which have only been found in New Zealand waters. The compounds are being investigated for their use in products ranging from pharmaceuticals to renewable energy sources.

Krystyna Ponikla has spent the last 16 years as the collection’s curator and has become an expert on the needs of each microalgae species. “Just like other living organisms, each group of microalgae has specific nutritional requirements,” she says. “We prepare special meals or a ‘medium’ that includes the right vitamins, trace metals, and other essential nutrients for each of those groups.”

Beyond maintaining the collection, she keeps meticulous records with every strain having its own “identification certificate.” “For researchers it’s absolutely critical that they know where the sample was collected, along with identification records and how long and under what conditions it has been kept.”

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