[USA] While two students at Lone Star College-Montgomery hoped their stress conditions on algae would create higher lipid function, they did not predict one sample turning orange. Biotechnology student Vasupradha Vasudevan and biotechnology intern Lorna Brewer work with faculty adviser Janeu Houston on separate algae experiments at the Undergraduate Research Institute.
Both students perform various stress conditions on algae to encourage it to produce higher levels of the molecule astaxanthin, a lipid that research shows can reduce inflammation, boost immune systems and fight cancer. Stress conditions typically include extreme light variations and nutrient deprivation.
It begins with Vasudevan expanding the algae and inserting bacterial genes or “instructions” into it. Then stress tests are performed, hoping to make the lipid overproduce astaxanthin. Brewer works on stressing algae with light, then takes samples stained in Nile red to a fluorescence microscope to see how the test affects the molecules.
While astaxanthin can be created in a lab using chemicals, Houston said their goal is to use algae in its natural form to keep toxic chemicals from being in the final product. Recently, the team was surprised to notice an algae sample that had a specific bacterial gene inserted into it, with no other stressors, changed from green to orange.
“At first, we were worried that it may be dying,” Vasudevan said, laughing, “but our department chair said that they’re not in fact dying, they’re stressed.”
Vasudevan and Houston brought the mysterious orange sample to Brewer for staining. After a closer look, the team determined the sample is producing lipids, but it will require months of analysis to know whether it is astaxanthin.
“What we have found right now is that this particular bacterial gene is affecting the algae this way, and we don’t know of any other study with this gene that has changed like this,” Houston said. “It was interesting, because it’s a completely separate project from our stressor project.”
For Vasudevan, this research that could help fight cancer, is personal. She came to LSC to study biotechnology after her younger brother was diagnosed in 2009 with Stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He passed away shortly after his diagnosis. “I just thought that whatever education I had thus far … I thought all that was useless,” she said of her two degrees. “I couldn’t help my brother. I couldn’t understand all the terms and all the work the doctors did.”
With the encouragement of her husband and her parents, Vasudevan began pursuing her third degree at LSC in 2014. She was the only student among five professors awarded a grant from URI.
From her work with Houston, Vasudevan was the only community college student in the country chosen to present research in the Molecular Biology category at the 2017 National Conference on Undergraduate Research.
Houston said the next step is for them to test the orange algae to see whether astaxanthin has overproduced. If so, the astaxanthin would be extracted from the algae and purified. The entire process could take over a year.
“The awesome thing about this college is we have amazing instrumentation, which a lot of colleges don’t have … allowing us to use our expertise,” Houston said. “This is really graduate-level work.”
Photo: Faculty Advisor Janeu Houston, right, shares a laugh with student Vasu Vasudevan as they conduct tests on algae samples at Lone Star College – Montgomery, Tuesday, April 12, 2017, in Conroe. Vasu and Houston are working with algae to stress lipids, which has been shown to help boost the immune system and has been used to fight cancer or other inflammatory diseases. Vasu recently was chosen to present two of 25 research projects from across the country at the 2017 National Conference on Undergraduate Research. She was the only community college student chosen to present in the Molecular Biology category. Photo: Jason Fochtman, Staff Photographer
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