New technology maps the movement of microscopic algae critical to ocean health

Thanks to new technology developed at the University of Exeter, the movement patterns of microscopic algae can be mapped in more detail than ever before, providing new insights into the health of the oceans.

The new platform allows scientists to study the movement patterns of microscopic algae in unprecedented detail. Findings could have implications for understanding and preventing harmful algal blooms, as well as developing algal biofuels that could one day provide an alternative to fossil fuels.

Microscopic algae play key roles in ocean ecosystems, forming the basis of aquatic food webs and sequestering most of the world’s carbon. The health of the oceans therefore depends on maintaining stable algal communities. There are growing concerns that changes in ocean composition, such as B. acidification, the spread of algae and the composition of the community could disturb. Many species move and swim around to find sources of light or nutrients to maximize photosynthesis.

The new microfluidic technology, now released in eLife, will allow scientists for the first time to capture and image individual microalgae floating in microdroplets. The state-of-the-art development has enabled the team to study how microscopic algae explore their microenvironment and to track and quantify their behavior over the long term. Importantly, they characterized how individuals differ from one another and respond to sudden changes in their habitat composition, such as the presence of light or certain chemicals.

The lead author Dr. Kirsty Wan, of the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute, said: “This technology means we can now probe and expand our understanding of the swimming behavior of any microscopic organism, in detail not previously possible. This will help us understand how they control their swimming patterns and their potential to adapt to future climate change and other challenges.”

In particular, the team discovered that the presence of interfaces with high curvature, combined with the microscopic corkscrew swimming of the organisms, induces macroscopic chiral motion (always clockwise or counterclockwise) seen in the average trajectory of cells.

The technology has a wide range of applications and could represent a new way to classify and quantify not only the environmental intelligence of cells but also complex behavioral patterns in any organism, including animals.

Wan added: “Ultimately, we aim to develop predictive models for swimming and culturing of microbial and microalgal communities in each relevant habitat, leading to a deeper understanding of current and future marine ecology.” Knowing the detailed behavior at the single-cell level is therefore an essential first step.”

The paper is entitled Phenotyping single-cell motility in microfluidic confinement and is published in eLife. This study was conducted in collaboration with microfluidics expert Dr. Fabrice Gielen (also from the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute) and Dr. Marco Mazza (Loughborough University).

– This press release was originally published on the University of Exeter website

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