It is a clear, cool autumn day and I find myself surrounded by huge piles of black coal, soot covered buildings and tall chimneys that remind me of factories from the sixties. The sun is shining, the sky is brilliant blue and the water-filled panels in front of me are thick with green algae.
This is part of the Algoland project, a collaboration between our research group at Linnaeus university and Cementa, a factory at the southern tip of Öland. In an effort to lower their carbon emissions Cementa and the Algoland team are working together to explore of how a natural community of Baltic Sea algae can take up carbon dioxide from smoke from the factory’s chimneys.
Algoland has now been running for 4 years and the algae seem to thrive. Not only are the algae doing an important job taking up carbon dioxide, the settings also offer an environment in which we can study the private life of algae. As the panels are located outside, where algae can benefit from the many hours of sun on southern Öland, they are affected by the natural changes in light and temperature caused by seasons. In my quest to learn more about how algae and bacteria interact, this setting is perfect.
Every Wednesday, the Algoland team covers the panels with large garden nets, removing them again of Friday. The shading is done in order to learn how light impact the algae and bacteria co-existing in our algal reactor.
Twice a week this fall I have taken samples of the algae and bacteria growing in the panels, carefully noting the surrounding conditions and monitoring the algal growth. I do this so that in the end I can learn, with the help of an eavesdropping technique called metatranscriptomics, how algae and bacteria are communicating. What topics do they chat about most frequently? Does their conversation change along with the weather? Especially: Are there topics that are shared between the algae and the bacteria? If I can capture snippets of dialog or at least get the broader context of what they are saying, it would help us understand how nutrients are being cycled not only inside these panels, but also in the Baltic Sea.
I take up my camera and take a photograph of the panels with the piles of coal and the dirty factory in the background, and I feel lucky for being a phd-student, having the opportunity to be part of a project like this, actually helping to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
-by Eva Sörenson
Eva Sörenson is a PhD student of supervisor Dr. Catherine Legrand in the Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences at Linnaeus University. She is a member of the research group Marine Phytoplankton Ecology and Applications and works on the Algoland project.