An unprecedented harmful algae bloom off the coast of New England this fall provided a unique opportunity for Colby students studying at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

Collecting water samples from a Bigelow Lab research vessel.

Collecting water samples from a Bigelow Lab research vessel.

Students in Bigelow’s semester-in-residence program conducting research along the Damariscotta River collected seawater samples during a large bloom of the harmful algae Pseudo-nitzschia, detected first near the Canadian border and steadily spreading, causing shellfisheries as far south as Rhode Island to close.

Bigelow’s Senior Research Scientist Peter Countway worked with the students to assess the abundance of the algae through advanced genetic tools.

“This fall’s Pseudo-nitzschia bloom gave us the opportunity to get the Colby students hands on with a cutting-edge molecular technique and engage them with a critical, real-world problem,” Countway said.

Pseudo-nitzschia is difficult to count using a microscope because it forms in long, tangle-prone chains. Countway instead uses a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique that detects and counts the copies of a gene specific to Pseudo-nitzschia. Students used the PCR technique to analyze samples quicker than looking through a microscope and manually counting.

There are, however, limitations of this method, including an inability for the PCR technique to tell different Pseudo-nitzschia species apart. The toxicity of these different species is also missing.

In search of an answer, Julia Park ’18 worked with Countway to grow about a dozen Pseudo-nitzschia cultures from cells captured in seawater samples.

“When working on a lab assignment at school, you do an experiment and normally know what the answer is going to be,” Park said. “It’s really valuable to get to work on a project like this because the information you know and the questions you need to answer change as the situation develops.”

Bigelow scientists will use the cultures to determine the toxicity of the different species. The cultures will also provide an opportunity to investigate the exact environmental conditions that trigger toxin production in some species of the algae.

The partnership with Bigelow Lab is just one of the unique opportunities Colby students benefit from by virtue of Colby’s Maine location. Students also conduct summer research at Bigelow and with the Maine Lakes Resource Center in Belgrade, and they study with Bigelow scientists on campus during Jan Plan.

A longer version of this story is available at Bigelow Laboratory’s website.