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The challenge

Understanding microalgae

Many species of microalgae are useful to us. Some produce omega3 oils and other oils that could be developed as biofuels. The pigments of phytoplankton, which are floating microalgae, can be used by remote sensing satellites to characterise the world’s oceans.

A bioluminescent Noctiluca bloom in southern Tasmania, May 2015. ©  Blackpaw Photography

Some microalgae produce toxins that are harmful to humans and animals. Some can proliferate as algal blooms, consuming oxygen, destroying aquatic life and causing health risks. Understanding these harmful algal blooms is essential to managing environmental health.

Our response

Collecting, culturing and characterising Australia's microalgae

Cultures of microalgae from our collection are being used to provide pigment reference material to inform descriptions of phytoplankton community composition on a regional scale, globally. Pigment analyses of algal cultures and other bio-optical measurements are used to ground truth estimates of phytoplankton biomass and other aspects of water quality detected by satellites.

Our microalgae collection holds representative strains of the majority of algae that are responsible for harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Australian coastal, marine, estuarine and fresh waters.

We are using these strains to research life histories, phytoplankton dynamics, nutrient interactions, genetic typing and gene expression, and control of toxin production, helping improve biogeochemical models and aid environmental management. We are also looking at the importance of algal-bacterial interactions in HAB development and toxicity.

[Music plays and camera pans a body of water where the bioluminescent algal blooms can be seen. Text appears: Bioluminescent algal blooms may be beautiful to look at, but this sea sparkle can be harmful to our environment.]

[Image changes to show an animated map of Australia, the camera zooms in on symbols representing wind and waves to the right of picture, eastern Australia. Text appears: Wind and wave activity concentrate Noctiluca scintillans algae in the shallow waters of eastern Australia, where they feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton.]

[Image changes to show light microscope vision of Noctiluca, text appears: Noctiluca is non-toxic, but large concentrations consume oxygen and produce ammonia, which can affect the local aquatic life.]

[Image changes to show an algal bloom, which appears orange in colour and is floating on top of a body of water. Text appears: The Australian National Algae Culture Collection contains more than 1000 strains of microalgae.]

[Camera zooms in on light microscope vision of an algae sample. Text appears: The collection is used to research algal biodiversity and distribution.]

[Image changes back to show a body of water with a pink algal bloom floating on top. Text appears: Our collection includes microalgae strains of economic importance and environmental concern.]

[Image changes to show the camera panning over beakers of different samples of algae. Text appears: The Australian National Algae Supply Service supplies living microalgae to industry and research organisations around the word.]

[Image changes back to show the camera panning over a body of water at night with bioluminescent algal blooms. Text appears: Microalgae – small but immensely powerful and, most importantly, pretty to look at!]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Australia’s innovation catalyst]

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