New technique maps the movement of microscopic algae in unprecedented detail


Schematic diagram of the experimental setup. (One) bilayer microfluidic device with embedded single-cell traps, and syringes for perfusing the carrier oil phase and the aqueous suspension containing living cells. (Second) 3D rendering of a single trap in which cells can be stably captured and imaged for hours. To demonstrate the variability in swimming behavior, we studied two species of motile algae, pictured separately: (C) One Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (CR) cells, and (Ding) One pyramid octopus (PO) cells, trapped in each case in circular wells with a diameter of 120 μm. (Ciliary positions are highlighted by manual tracing.). credit: Life (2022). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.76519

The movement patterns of microalgae can be mapped in greater detail than ever before, providing new insights into ocean health, thanks to new technology developed at the University of Exeter.

The new platform allows scientists to study the movement patterns of microalgae in unprecedented detail. This insight could have implications for understanding and preventing harmful algal blooms, as well as the development of algal biofuels, which could one day serve as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Microscopic algae play a key role in marine ecosystems, forming the basis of aquatic food webs and sequestering much of the world’s carbon. Therefore, the health of the ocean depends on maintaining a stable algae population. There is growing concern that changes in ocean composition, such as acidification, may disrupt algal dispersal and community composition. Many species move and swim around in search of light sources or nutrients to maximize photosynthesis.

New microfluidic technique, details of which are now published in Life, will allow scientists to capture and image individual microalgae swimming inside microdroplets for the first time. Frontiers’ development allowed the team to study how microalgae explore their microenvironment, and to track and quantify their behavior over time. Importantly, they describe differences between individuals and their responses to sudden changes in the composition of their habitat, such as light or the presence of certain chemicals.

Lead author Dr. Kirsty Wan, from the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute, said: “This technology means we can now explore and advance our understanding of the swimming behavior of any microbe in a way that was not possible before. This will help us understand how they potential to control their swimming patterns and adapt to future climate change and other challenges.”

In particular, the team found that the presence of an interface with strong curvature, combined with the organism’s microscopic corkscrew swimming, induces the macroscopic chiral motion (always clockwise or counterclockwise) seen in the average trajectory of the cell.

This technique has a wide range of potential uses and could represent a new approach to classify and quantify not only the environmental intelligence of cells, but also the complex behavioral patterns of any organism, including animals.

Dr. Wan added: “Ultimately, our goal is to develop predictive models for swimming and cultivating microbial and microalgal communities in any relevant habitat, thereby gaining a deeper understanding of current and future marine ecology. Therefore, the study of individual cell The understanding of the detailed behavior that occurs at the level is an important first step.”

More information:
Samuel A Bentley et al, Phenotyping single-cell motility in microfluidic confinement, Life (2022). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.76519

Journal information:

Provided by University of Exeter

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