Here at Longue Vue, we strive to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Plant-based food is often served on bamboo plates (which will later be a great addition to our compost pile!). Additionally, the education of today’s youth remains of great importance to us, just as it had been for the Sterns. As a Longue Vue employee, part of my job is to work with children of various ages and teach them things such as composting, how to care for their garden or even about the great advantages of having bees and butterflies in your garden! My name is Catherine Vogel and I work in Children’s Programs, but I also go to school at Delgado Community College where I’m studying Biotechnology. Biotechnology is the manipulation of biological systems or components in a way that would be beneficial to society. A well-known example of this would be the Covid vaccine however the applications extend far beyond medical applications. One field within biotechnology, that I have a deep appreciation for, is bioremediation. Microscopic organisms such as bacteria or fungi often have the unique ability to break down materials that would otherwise be unable to decompose on their own. Bioremediation uses these microbes to clean up contaminated areas. This is the idea upon which an internship I participated in was based on.
A site in New Mexico, known as Ambrosia Lake, was once used as a Uranium mining site. By 1982 over a hundred acres of radioactive tailings were left after over two decades of extraction. Over the years, the mines had filled with water and then algae began growing in the water near the entrance to the mines. Soon it was noticed that the levels of radiation had decreased where the algae grew thickest. The algae were decomposing the Uranium! Unfortunately, the identity of the algal species was unknown and further testing was needed to definitively say that the algae was decomposing the Uranium.
Last year, members of the Algae Technology Educational Consortium (ATEC) organized a national competition that would hence be known as Algae Prize. It was with the help of the ATEC community that partnerships were made, and teams formulated in order to combat one algal related issue or another nationwide. As a student of Delgado, I joined a team along with Greg my fellow classmate and another student Serena from Sante Fe Community College. Together we were “Toxic Ambrosia Salad”, and our project was to identify the algae growing in the mines of Ambrosia Lake, determine optimal growth conditions and prove that this algal species can remediate water contaminated with radionuclides of Uranium. Serena focused on growing the algae and determining its optimal growth conditions while Greg and I (under the supervision of our mentor, Dr. McGraw) worked on identifying the algal species through DNA sequencing. We were given one year to complete this project and then in April 2023, fourteen teams would present their projects to a panel of judges for the final competition.
We wasted no time. Serena sent us samples of the algae and we went right to work. The first thing we had to do was extract the DNA from the algal cells and then purify it. Then we had to cut out specific segments of the DNA and then amplify it. We did this because sequencing small segments of DNA was less than $100 but sequencing the whole genome (all the DNA) would have cost over $1,000. Amplification was done via PCR (polymerase chain reaction). PCR is the process of making millions of copies of DNA segments, from only a few segments, and to sequence DNA, millions of copies are needed. Once PCR was done, we ensured our samples met the criteria of being at a certain concentration and purity and then we sent them for sequencing. Two weeks later, we received an excel spreadsheet of thousands upon thousands of DNA strands each made up of a few hundred base pairs, each pair represented by one of four single letter codes (A, T, G or C). This became quite complicated as we had sent four samples for sequencing and each sample returned literally thousands of sequences. However, we were able to see which sequences occurred the most often and only sequences that were present more than a thousand times were analyzed (This narrowed us down to less than a hundred sequences for each sample). Then we used the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) database to blast the DNA sequences. Basically, sequences were uploaded onto the website and the website returned to us some information about the sequence. It told us what species the sequence came from and how closely it matched with the sequence on file. We only looked at sequences that matched 100% and that narrowed each sample down to less than 10 sequences. Luckily at this point, although we still had multiple different sequences, all sequences were shown to be from the same species, at least for each sample. Out of our four samples, one sample returned little to no information and was discarded, two samples showed to have come from an algal species called Desmodesmus and the last was from a very closely related species called Scenedesmus. Project (mostly) complete.
While Greg and I had been working on the DNA sequencing, Serena had determined the optimal growth conditions and sent water samples for testing (this was to determine the ability of the algal species to remediate the water). We had only just finished the water testing in time for the final competition. We also wrote a 25-page paper on our project, made a poster and a PowerPoint presentation. Greg and I flew to Colorado for the competition (Serena couldn’t make it so it was up to Greg and I to present). The final competition, which was funded by the US Department of Energy, took place at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. On Friday, we went on a tour of NREL Lab and got to see firsthand how they are working to advance energy efficiency and sustainability through renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind power, hydropower, geothermal power and bioenergy. On Saturday, Greg and I were one of the last teams to present our project and I was incredibly nervous leading up to our presentation. Our panel of judges included phycologists from the Algae (ATEC) Community but also scientists from NREL, who worked for the US DoE. When it was our turn, we presented and did well, but so had every other team who had come before us, still I felt very much relieved that at least that part was over. Next was the poster session, which was where teams stood in front of their posters and the judges walked around and asked us questions. This was much less nerve-wracking, and we also did pretty well at the poster session. Sunday was when the finalists were announced, and we were in the top 10, but not in the top 5. So I didn’t get any money but I did get a water bottle. I even went hiking! Additionally, now that I am back here at Longue Vue, I am very much excited to share my experience with everyone, but in particular the kids because while they might not understand all that we did, the idea that algae eats uranium aka pollution, might just stick. Motivating kids to care about the environment and teaching them environmental science has become a personal goal for me here at Longue Vue, both because I care so much about the environment but also because I want future generations to be able to live in a clean environment and enjoy it as we do. As Chief Seattle said, “The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth”.