Explorit: Bloom or bust? Two sides of algae

[USA] Explorit’s Science Lecture series is off to a robust start this spring with a variety of environmental topics. Join us for the next installment on Thursday, March 3, as we tackle the tricky issue of blue-green algae.

Why should we be interested in these algae? For many important reasons, one of which is that this year’s toxic algal bloom off California’s Pacific coast could be the largest one scientists have ever seen. Animal-rescue centers along the coast are seeing an unusual increase in sea lion, dolphin and pelican deaths.

We will explore this complex issue from multiple sides with a joint presentation, “Blue-Green Algae: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” by Annaliese Franz and Bob Poppenga.

Microscopic algae (microalgae) are amazing little green photosynthetic factories that can produce a type of oil that can be converted to biodiesel fuel. Franz’s research uses several approaches to improve biofuel production from algae, and also investigates how these microalgae can be grown using wastewater as a source of nutrients so that the process is helping to purify the water at the same time as it is producing oil to be converted to biodiesel.

This research also highlights the great teamwork that can exist between chemists, biologists and engineers.

On the flip side, many microalgae species produce potent toxins that can harm humans and animals. These toxins are produced by algae following rapid growth in a body of water.

The accumulation of millions of microscopic algal cells in water can be seen as a bluish-green scum on or near the water surface. These are called algal “blooms.” Toxic blooms occur in water impacted by environmental nutrient loading, primarily fertilizer runoff.

Exposure of people and animals to these blooms can cause rapid onset of illness and death. Poppenga’s laboratory tests animal and water samples for the most common algal toxins and helps water agencies identify problems before harm occurs.

Together, Franz and Poppenga will lead us through this fascinating and multilayered phenomenon. Franz received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Trinity University in San Antonio, and her Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Irvine in 2002. In 2007, she started as an assistant professor in the chemistry department at UC Davis, and was promoted to associate professor in 2013. Franz is passionate about education and mentoring students in many programs on campus.

Poppenga is professor of clinical veterinary toxicology and section head at the Toxicology Laboratory at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. An Illinois native, he received his veterinary and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana. The Toxicology Laboratory at CAHFS is one of the busiest of its kind in the world and offers comprehensive diagnostic toxicology testing.

Be sure to bring your questions and your curiosity! This lecture will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at the DMG Mori auditorium, 3805 Faraday Ave. in Davis.

  • Explorit’s Exploration Gallery is open to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and from 3 to 6 p.m. every Friday. Admission is $5 per person; Explorit members, teachers and children 2 and under are free. Come check out the new Nano Mini Exhibition.


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