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Water Today Title December 8, 2023

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Update 2022/5/25
Blue-green algae

Identifying toxic blue-green algae species through mass spectrometry

WT Interview with Dr. Aneika Leney, Ph.D., Biological Mass Spectrometry, UK

May 24, 2022

WT: I have with me on the phone, Aneika Leney, she is a School of Bio-Sciences lecturer, in biological mass spectrometry at the University of Birmingham, UK. Could you explain to our viewers what you do and why is it important to cyanobacteria and people involved in blue-green algae?

Aneika Leney: Yes, we work on several different things, but we are involved in developing technology primarily. Bluegreen algae are all around the world in various waters and lakes; they expand and grow very quickly. They can produce toxins which are just devastating for the environment and the people that want to use the watercourses.

There are lots of different species of blue-green algae everywhere. We want to know which ones produce toxins, and when they produce toxins. Not all the different species produce toxins; we want to find technology which can detect which species of algae are present in water, and whether or not they are toxic or about to become toxic.

WT: There is only one test I know of, for detecting blue-green algae toxins reporting on this for ten years. Is this a new type of test for telling people not to go in the water? Is this a faster test, or a mechanized test?

Leney: At the moment we use quite high specification instruments, which are quite expensive to use, called mass spectrometers. These are already, more frequently used to detect the toxins present, that these blue-green algae produce. We want to use this same technology to work out which species are there, to see if we can correlate the two.

If then we were to see a specific species in a lake, we could say ok that species have produced a toxin before, you need to be careful about that water you are looking at. Or we know that we have never seen a toxin produced with this species before, therefore you are probably going to be okay even though it’s there.

The technology we developed is quite new, it’s based on the blue part of the blue-green algae. We know that the blue part, which is a protein, is different in every species of algae, and because it is different, it weighs slightly differently, therefore we can detect the difference between them. So, by measuring this component, we should be able to identify which species it comes from.

WT: How did you become interested in this field of study, why is it important, and why did you get involved, specifically in mass spectrometry?

Leney: My background at school was biology and chemistry, then I went on to do a biochemistry degree because I did not know which one to choose, so I did both of them together. Within that, I was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company called Glaxo Smith Kline, which then introduced me to the technology of mass spectrometry. This technology, at the time I was using it to quantitate different drugs that were present in blood samples. 

During my PhD, I decided I liked that, and then I did a Ph.D. following that. I was looking at the same technology, but applying it to Alzheimer’s disease, and the progression that happens within Alzheimer’s disease. And so, I have been applying mass spectrometry to look at lots of different problems over my career.

This specific problem (blue-green algae and toxins) is something I have started on more recently. The technology is very important, it’s used in a lot of things, mass spectrometers are present on the spaceships that go to Mars to work out the gas compositions there, we use the technology to analyze the compositions of wines, it is used in drug discovery, looking at blue-green algae is just one of the applications of the technology.

WT: There are all these different algae, you are looking for blue-green algae because these can be lethal in some cases, to come up with a rapid detection system, then I read you are building a database of algae?

Leney: We want to create a “fingerprint” for each different species of algae, so if we saw some data, we would know which species matched up. We need lots of different species of algae to fingerprint. When we get samples that we don’t know, we can say, “Oh it matches to this fingerprint, therefore this algae species is present.” The first stage is to create this huge database to which we could compare everything.

WT: How long will it take to develop a functional testing system for lakes and rivers? Canada has, like everywhere else, an exploding blue-green situation. When would this be available?

Leney: It is all at the first stage of development. At the moment, the things that would accelerate this is more financial input into the technology, so we could fund more researchers to do the groundwork, to get this rolling faster. The first thing that we would need for that is help in getting us samples. If we have lots of samples we have identified, we can use that to create the database, and where we have an unknown sample, we can compare. In the process of collecting samples, if we have samples from around the world, that would help us out.

Once set up, the analysis is very quick.

The database setup is first, then we can identify the species and whether there are toxins present. We should be able to get the results back to you in a day or so. First, we need to create the database, so we can be confident that we have not missed anything.

WT: We have a considerable viewer base in Canada in the USA. Should we have people with blue-green, red algae, or algae of all sorts, would it help to have them ship you samples?

Leney: That would help. We are based in the UK, so we have some samples from within the UK. If we could get some small samples from elsewhere, and people were willing to ship us a sample. The perfect scenario would be if we could have the same water sample before and after the algae bloom is present. Ideally, we want to be able to predict whether it can happen, or can form. So that would be the perfect scenario, but maybe viewers don’t know that until they have seen it. It could be that the bloom dies down and we collect a sample next year.

WT: Where do you see going from here, in terms of what you do? Is this the kind of thing that would take years to study, or once you have it down, is it done? Will you stay with this subject or move on to other topics?

Leney: I think it would be something that would be constantly developing. Maybe we say that we can detect ten different species, but then new species evolve. So, we need to constantly be updating the technology to make sure that we can always detect new ones that are evolving or growing. We know there are thousands of different species, so the chances are, these being the first species on the planet, we know these things can evolve and change very quickly. We have to make sure we can keep the technology going, to make sure we grow with that, and keep detecting. This is an analytical challenge that will keep going. My research group looks at other things, we also look at how algae harvest light energy.

WT: Could you talk about how the algae harvest light energy?

Leney: We know that these algae can survive extremely well and at different depths of oceans and all sorts of different climates. The reason they can do that is that they’ve got these amazing light-harvesting machines, that can capture light energy from all sorts of varieties, that we don’t normally use, that plants don’t normally use.

They can capture (light) very efficiently, so we want to work out how they do that, so maybe we could create that machinery for things like incorporating into natural solar panels.

WT: What do we know so far, and how does light harvesting work?

Leney: Light comes into the algae, into “sunlight machinery” that captures different wavelengths of light; we think the broader wavelengths of light mean that more light overall is captured. Basically, as light comes into the algae, it is converted to chemical energy for the algae to grow and survive. It is similar for plants: photosynthesis, light converted to chemical energy for the plant to survive. The thing with algae is it incorporates a broader spectrum of light, because of the range of colours, this translates to more energy, the algae use that energy themselves.

WT: Even at the bottom of a lake, blue frequency or green frequency, there is still blue light? At depth, if you swim down, it seems dark. Are you saying there is light down there?

Leney: There is still light down there, we know that algae are using the light to get their energy. We know that they must have very efficient machinery inside to convert the very limited light, and still survive. We want to know, how have they done that? What makes them so efficient, that with limited light they still survive?

WT: People say that you are an emerging leader in this area. I could see your work used in solar panels and other areas. What exactly does a biological mass spectrometrist do?

Leney: I learn to use the latest technology that has been developed by instrument manufacturers. I work out exactly how (the new technology) works, and then I work out what this could be useful for in the field of biology. This is my role: people build new equipment, I work out that it can do this or that, I go back to developers to (suggest) maybe it can do more of this (or that). I am the interface between the equipment and the biology.

WT: What would you say to someone who is just finishing high school or going into university, what would someone need to do to enter your field, to be in this industry? Is this a growth industry? Is biological sciences something Canadian students should be looking at?

Leney: There are two avenues people could typically explore and no right answer. What I did is followed the technology, and the technology constantly develops. I learn the new technology, use the technology and figure out how to apply this to so many different biological problems. It never gets boring. Some people work exclusively with cancer for instance, whereas with the (developing) technology, I can switch into a completely different biological area as I want to, from a disease to food, to cosmetics, many areas. 

If you find something you like, if you like a certain technology, follow that through all of its possibilities. If you like the idea of working with a certain disease, follow that, look to the different technologies, there are different options you can explore.

NOTE: WATERTODAY invites you to help Dr. Leney build her algae database. There are hundreds of of different species aound the world. If you are willing to gather samples please give us a call at 613-501-0175 and we will walk you through the process.


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