Using Biochemistry to Explore Applications of Algae


“Sometimes people view algae as a nuisance because it forms films on their fish tank or prevents them from going to the beach,” said Manoj Kamalanathan, the newest senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory. “Its positive impacts and potential are often harder to see, but they are extraordinary.”

Kamalanathan, the newest senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, is committed to revealing and understanding those positive impacts of algae. He joined the laboratory in April 2022 with an interest in leveraging the biochemistry of phytoplankton to better understand — and develop solutions to — the adverse impacts of climate change.

But his journey to becoming an algae expert wasn’t so straightforward. Kamalanathan’s undergraduate and master’s degree, received back in his home country of India, were both in microbiology, and he spent a few years working as a cancer researcher in Mumbai. While he enjoyed the research environment, the field of study was less interesting to him.

“So, I took time while I was working there and wrote my own project to go back to what I truly enjoyed,” he said, “and that was biochemistry.”

Kamalanathan went on to earn his doctorate in biochemistry at Monash University in Australia, which he describes as his first introduction to phytoplankton. It was also his first introduction to Bigelow Laboratory, as his dissertation advisor, John Beardall, had been a postdoctoral researcher at the lab.

He didn’t head to Maine right away, though. Instead, Kamalanathan next went to Texas to conduct research at Texas A&M University at Galveston, studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on phytoplankton. It was through his oil spill research that he met another “Bigelowian”, Senior Research Scientist Christoph Aeppli, who encouraged him to apply to a new opening at Bigelow Laboratory.

Today, as a senior research scientist, Kamalanathan works on all manners of projects. For example, he’s been building a bioreactor to try to continuously produce hydrogen, a clean source of fuel, using algae. Scientists have known for decades that algae can produce hydrogen, but Kamalanathan is examining new species of algae that others haven’t examined and exploring new ways to make the process more efficient.

On the more fundamental research side of things, he’s also trying to understand how rising carbon dioxide levels in the ocean might alter how phytoplankton concentrate carbon in their cells — an essential process that releases dissolved organic carbon into the ocean that other species rely on for food.

Some of the problems he’s taking on in his research are nothing short of some of the greatest challenges facing society today.

“We need to develop strategies to continue producing more food, but at the same time not emit so much greenhouse gas emissions,” Kamalanathan said. “That’s where algae comes in.”

On a trip to Home Depot to find a pepper plant — needless to say, Maine cuisine isn’t as spicy as what he was used to back home in Mumbai — Kamalanathan noticed a green, sticky biofilm covering on the soil, and inspiration struck for how it might help two major agricultural problems.

Current farming practices leave excess fertilizer on the land, which can runoff into waterways and promote harmful algae blooms. At the same time, natural bacteria in the soil break down organic matter falling off crops, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That process of respiration is one of the leading causes of emissions from agriculture, an industry that is itself a leading producer of greenhouse gases.

Using algae as living fertilizer, Kamalanathan hopes to address these challenges. For one, the algae biofilm can capture the carbon dioxide, both, from the atmosphere and from respiration. On top of that, some kinds of algae can absorb nutrients to enhance the quality of the soil, potentially avoiding the need for fertilizers that can run off and pollute nearby waterways.

The project was made possible through seed funding powered by Bigelow Laboratory donors, including the Sash A. and Mary M. Spencer Entrepreneurial Fund. It’s just getting started, but the project shows promise for providing a cost-effective way to reduce the environmental impacts of farming.

Bigelow Laboratory was also a natural fit for Kamalanathan, who said he appreciates the opportunity to have creative control over his science and pursue high-risk, high-reward research. While he’s hopeful for potential applications of his work, he’s primarily driven by his insatiable curiosity.

“When I get an idea, I just need to know if I’m right or wrong,” he said. “Along the way, I always find new questions that are interesting and important.”