Research Profile | Ingrid Tissot van Patot | MSc Marine Science & Climate Change

A Description of Prokaryotic Picoplanktonic Communities and their Relationships with the Physio-Chemical.
23rd March 2023

Describe your MSc project?

My MSc project focused on picoplanktonic prokaryotic (bacterial) community dynamics within an open-air algae raceway fertilised by wastewater (sewage). Algae raceways are currently the cheapest available method of cultivating certain algae species. The algal biomass is then harvested and used in products of pharmaceutical, nutraceutical or even cosmetic value. Recently however, algae raceways have drawn attention as a potentially sustainable source of energy. Namely, the generation of sustainable biogas (methane) via the anaerobic digestion of algae biomass harvested from these raceways. The use of wastewater to fertilise algae raceways has also drawn much attention in recent decades due to the mutually beneficial arrangement providing a cheap source of fertiliser for the algae as well as free sewage treatment (in the form of microbially-mediated nutrient removal). However due to the complexity and instability of microbial communities, biomass (algae blooms) in outdoor raceways tends to collapse, hence compromising its feasibility as a sustainable source of energy.
Project PRODIGIO (Developing Early Warning Systems for Improved microalgae PROduction and Anaerobic DIGestIOn) is a three-year research project funded by the EU which aims to boost productivity in open-air algae raceways and develop an early-warning signal to indicate when the algae raceway begins to transition into a “failure state” (bloom collapse). PRODIGIO maintains two algae raceways in Almería, southern Spain. One fertilised with wastewater and one fertilised with artificial fertilisers. Samples are taken at both the inflow (i.e. fertiliser) and outflow (culture samples) points of the raceway, and multiple ASV (genetic) datasets are generated focusing on different aspects of microbial life within the raceways (for example the picoplanktonic <0.2 μm and nanoplanktonic <3 μm size fractions, or eukaryotic and prokaryotic communities). PRODIGIO samples are sent to the Institut de Ciéncies del Mar (ICM) in Barcelona, Spain, where DNA extraction and chemical analysis are carried out.
I carried out my project based at the ICM in Barcelona, using data provided by project PRODIGIO. I decided to focus on the wastewater raceway outflow (culture) samples of the picoplanktonic size fraction of prokaryotic communities, and I also received data pertaining to the physio-chemical environment within the raceways, including biomass productivity, nutrients (including nitrate, ammonium and phosphate), pH, dissolved oxygen (DO), photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) and photosynthetic efficiency (Fv/Fm). I carried out analyses in R, Excel and PRIMER to determine interrelationships between environmental variables and how picoplanktonic prokaryotic community dynamics are influenced/influenced by environmental factors.

What type of research has it involved and what skills have you learned?

I carried out my project based at the ICM in Barcelona, Spain. My research was mostly statistics-based as all the field and lab work had already been done when I began my project, however I did have the opportunity to participate in lab work trainings led by Dr. Celia Marrasé. This gave me the opportunity to further my lab and practical skills in a research context, as well as gain experience working in a professional environment.
I carried out my statistical analysis using R (version 4.2.0) (vegan package), PRIMER and Excel. I have gained basic competency in the R programming language and understand what a useful tool it is for data analysis and visualisation. In R I carried out non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) analysis to provide a visualisation of the differences in observed community compositions throughout the culturing period. I also created stacked bar charts showing the relative abundance of the phyla present in the raceway overlaid with biomass and nutrients. I have also had the chance to further develop my skills and competency in Excel and PRIMER through carrying out analysis such as analysis of similarity (ANOSIM), similarity percentage (SIMPER) and calculating spearman’s rank coefficients.

Were there any partners/stakeholders on your project?

I carried out my project based at the ICM in Barcelona, Spain, and in collaboration with Project PRODIGIO. Gaining experience in a working environment at the ICM was invaluable as a student, as it allowed me to participate in lab training opportunities, form professional connections and attend lecture events at the ICM.
I would like to thank Celia Marrasé, Carmen García-Comas and Pedro Cermeño for making my placement at the ICM possible and for their warm welcome. I would like to extend my thanks to Carmen García-Comas (my supervisor at the ICM) for her guidance and support throughout this project.

Why should the public know about this topic?

In my opinion, algae raceway technology not only highlights the urgent need to shift to more sustainable energy sources in the face of climate change, but it also highlights the fascinatingly complex lives of microalgae. While my project focused mainly on the bacterial communities in the wastewater raceway, the influence of phytoplankton communities as well as the interactions between these two communities were clear. Phytoplankton are intrinsically linked to the global life support system and understanding their life cycles and what influences species abundance is a key area of research if algae raceways are to be successful.

What is the wider impact of your research?

This project will not only contribute to the body of knowledge regarding potential roles certain bacteria species play in microbial communities, but also assist in understanding the feasibility of using wastewater as a culture medium for algae raceways. While wastewater introduces a complex microbiome into the algae raceway, successful nutrient removal has been demonstrated in PRODIGIO’s wastewater raceway, which is a promising result.

Comments from Head of School

Ingrid’s contribution to the wider EU-funded Prodigio project has shown that algal raceways shows an exciting promise to more sustainable energy sources but there is still more work to do to disentangle the variables that influence a ‘boom’/’bust’ cycle to controlling stable algal biomass and productivity. What Ingrid has shown in a 13 week research project is that datamining and statistical approaches can aid our understanding of the combination environmental factors (such as light, oxygen levels etc) in driving planktonic species diversity and productivity.
We would like to thanks Dr Carmen García-Comas, the Instituto de Ciencias del Mar (ICM) – CSIC in Barcelona, Spain and EU Project Prodigio for hosting Ingrid and the Erasmus+ mobility fund for funding Ingrid’s research visit to Barcelona.
Dr Awantha Dissanayake, Head of School (Marine & Environmental Sciences)
  • MSc

    Master in Marine Science & Climate Change

    Designed and delivered by expert academics and scientists, this full or part-time interdisciplinary programme blends theoretical study with practical, field-based work. You will cover specialist subject areas and gain the skills required to tackle the complex issues associated with the sustainable development of marine ecosystems.[...]

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