Citizen Science Project: Cyanobacteria Bioprospecting

8th graders test-driving our algae science kits.

8th graders test-driving our algae science kits.

We're trying out an experiment in crowdfunding and crowdsourcing science, and we need your help to do it! Here's how it works: fundraise enough money, and we'll send an algae test kit custom-made for the classroom of your choice. Students will learn basic microbiology principles, while culturing local, wild algae. The samples will then be returned to us for testing and sequencing. We'll see what useful strains we can find in different areas across the country, and give us a better understanding of what kinds of cyanobacteria thrive in each location. For more details, or to sign up, see our FAQ, below.

There are micro-algae everywhere; in any small body of water, being spread by the wind. Some of these strains can create harmful byproducts like the toxin microcystin. Some strains can synthesize compounds with natural anti-cancer or anti-oxidant properties. Some of these strains are easy to work with in lab, some are not. I've developed a genetic tool to help isolate these tractable cyanobacteria from wild cultures.

Wild  Leptolyngbya  strain; DIC, autofluoresence, YFP

Wild Leptolyngbya strain; DIC, autofluoresence, YFP

The first stage of the process is pretty simple, and an ideal way to get the public more involved in the scientific process. We'll send out cyanobacteria culturing kits to schools and individuals across the country, along with video instructions. Students and backers will learn basic scientific techniques like how to streak a sample on an agar plate, calculate a serial dilution, and make precise observations. Culturing your own blue-green algae is an excellent science project for students of any age.

After initial growth, samples will be shipped back to our lab where we can test them out. Microscope images of strains will be uploaded to our website, so citizen scientists can see the results of the study and use them in their science reports! Project data will be uploaded to a user-accessible database, for analysis by any contributor to the study. This open data set is perfect practice for learning data analysis and programming skills.

Bioprospecting FAQ

This is the first time we've ever tried something like this, so this page is to help get the idea across. Here's how I've imagine this working: a teacher or parent, or administrator wants a fun, unique, hands-on science experience for a classroom. They reach out to friends/family/other parents/the Internet to make donations to support this campaign. All donations are tax-deductible! Donations will be used to fund further videos and progress reports throughout the course of the experiments, and to return results to participating classes.

How do I get an algae kit for a school classroom?

If you raise $350 (or only $250 for the first ten kits!), we'll get in touch with the teacher of a classroom of your choice, and send them experimental supplies, instructions, curriculum guidelines, and technique-building videos. To get started, click the button below!

The kits will contain all supplies needed to grow and isolate wild cyanobacterial strains from any local water source. This includes liquid media, agar plates, flasks, test tubes, plating beads, and more. We will communicate directly with the teachers involved to see what equipment they have in their classroom, and supplement that where necessary with equipment like sterilizing loops, flames, and pipettes.

What's in the kit?

Sample equipment in an algae classroom kit.

Sample equipment in an algae classroom kit.

No. Anyone can participate in fundraising! If you raise enough for a kit, you can pick any school to send it to; your old middle school; a friend's school; a school in your neighborhood. If you don't have a particular school in mind, we'll help you find a teacher that would be interested!

Do I have to be a teacher or a parent to fundraise?

Bioprospecting just means finding useful living organisms to study, from the natural world. From tiny water samples, we can find hundreds of different strains of bacteria. Some of them may work well with our customized broad host-range plasmid, which will allow us to study them more effectively. 

What is bioprospecting?

After samples are grown up in the classroom for 2-4 weeks, the samples can be sealed into a tube and returned to us in an included shipping envelope. We will process the samples in lab, do some genetic testing and sequencing, then send back microscope images and information about the specific strains we found in their local source to the teacher.

What happens to the samples after they're grown?

Fluorescent microscope images of a wild  Synechocycstis  strain cultured from a lake in San Diego.

Fluorescent microscope images of a wild Synechocycstis strain cultured from a lake in San Diego.

The algae kits are appropriate for nearly any science classroom, from middle school to college lab. We've successfully tested these exercises out with 8th graders, but there are optional additional exercises appropriate for any age or experience level, and availability of lab equipment. We will reach out to each teacher individually to discuss exercises and equipment needs on a per-classroom basis.

What ages is this appropriate for?

There are two to three classroom exercises, spread out over a period of a month to a month and a half. The actual timeline is very flexible, and we can get meaningful data back after just the first step. Each exercise will be coupled with youtube videos to explain background and to demonstrate proper techniques. 

The first exercise is the simplest, to collect samples and grow up algae cultures in flasks under a light. Half of those samples can be returned directly to us after ~4 weeks growth, and the remainder used by the students in followup exercises 2 and 3. These exercises will cover other scientific and microbiology techniques such as serial dilution, streaking, and sterile technique, and microscopy, depending on the equipment available to the classroom. 

How long will this take?

We plan on sending out kits to 50 classrooms at most. This entire process is an experiment, and we wanted to make sure we didn't overcommit on the first round. With no more than 50 classrooms, we can still provide individual attention and support to each teacher who needs it, to make sure our instructions are easy to understand and execute. This will be a relatively small sample size  to see what works and what doesn't the first time we try it.

How many kits will you send out?

We expect to discover novel strains of useful cyanobacteria, ones that can use our broad host-range plasmid system. These strains may have useful properties, like fast growth, heat tolerance, or ones that make complex molecules.

What do you expect to find?

We will provide microscope images, as well as sequencing data, so you can put a name to that little cyano you grew! There will also be more digital information made available as part of a data set for practice analysis.

What information will we get back?

Wild  Synechocystis  strain. DIC, autofluoresence, YFP

Wild Synechocystis strain. DIC, autofluoresence, YFP

All donations will go to funding and performing educational science experiments, and making videos about them! All backers will receive exclusive additional educational videos, such as a video tour of our lab and field station facilities, scientific videos about cyanobacteria, and further updates on experiment progress and methods.

What if I don't raise enough money for a kit?

Question not answered here? Ask us, or email!