Sandia LabNews

RapTOR for algae: Understanding pond collapse

Last month, Todd Lane (8623), Jeri Timlin (8622), and Ben Wu (8125) received $800,000 in funding over two years from the DOE Biomass Program for their proposal “Pond Crash Forensics.” Using pathogen detection and characterization technologies developed under the RapTOR Grand Challenge, they will compare the environmental conditions and metagenomes of algal samples taken from normal ponds to those taken from ponds that have undergone collapse.

Algae are widely viewed as a potential source of renewable fuel, but the technology to mass-produce fuel-grade algae is still in the early stages. A major roadblock, says Todd, is the inability to produce large amounts of algae.

Algae are commonly grown in raceway ponds, large, shallow, artificial ponds that serve as fields for algae crops. “Pathogens and viruses fall into these ponds and can crash a pond overnight,” says Todd. “No one has identified many of the agents that are causing these pond crashes. You can’t develop countermeasures without understanding why something is happening. This is a complex problem with a lot of factors at play.”

He adds that this is a mostly unexplored area because growing algae is closer to farming than biotechnology. “This is a good application for RapTOR because, like clinical blood samples, there is a lot of naturally occurring stuff to sort through before you can find the pathogen or virus,” says Todd. “It’s a really good niche for Sandia, to provide a service that will be of great benefit to the algal biofuel industry that will in turn greatly benefit the nation.”