David Hartnell is conducting his doctoral research into the growth and toxin content of a particular type of freshwater algae - cyanobacteria. He’s working on this project in collaboration with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), a government agency tasked with ensuring the UK’s marine and freshwater environments remain healthy and sustainable.
David’s study, entitled: Predicting the future growth and toxin content of key cyanobacteria species in a changing world is still in its early stages, as he is only in the first year of his PhD. As well as having a great deal of support from his supervisory team at BU, David will be working with Cefas staff to ensure his study is as relevant and useful as possible.
“I’ll be drawing on their [Cefas’] expertise in the disciplines of analytical chemistry and environmental toxicology,” he explains, as well as making use of some of the specialist equipment situated in the Cefas laboratory in nearby Weymouth. “The toxin content of cultures will be qualified and quantified using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectrometry (MS) at Cefas,” he adds.
David has already received training in HPLC and MS from staff at the facility in Weymouth, in addition to the training in algal culturing, flow cytometry, identification and isolation techniques that he received from BU - all of which will be crucial to his study.
When you delve a little deeper into the subject matter of his doctorate, it’s easy to see why Cefas is a logical partner. “The aim of my research is to improve the understanding of factors affecting the abundance and toxicological properties of cyanobacterial species found in UK freshwaters,” David elaborates.
“I have the further aim of extending the predictive capabilities of the incidence and toxicity of cyanobacterial blooms with respect to increased water temperatures, nutrient loading, atmospheric CO2 and water residence times.”
This could all be crucial to maintaining the health of the UK’s freshwater systems, as algal blooms can have an adverse effect on ecosystems and water supplies by creating anoxic (oxygen depleted) waters, fouling infrastructure and producing potent toxins.
“There are several species of bloom-forming cyanobacteria displaying a wide range of physiologies, morphologies and toxins,” David tells us.
“Increasing water temperatures, nutrient loading, atmospheric CO2 and water residence times are all predicted to favour cyanobacteria growth and toxin content. However, the interactions between these factors - i.e. additive, synergistic or antagonistic - is unclear.”
By better understanding these factors, David hopes his research will be able to help predict when and where potentially harmful algal blooms may develop. He’s already thinking about the practical applications his research could have, adding that he’d like to source funding from industrial partners, such as water companies, to support his work after his doctorate.
Despite only being in the early stages of his PhD, David has already had the opportunity to meet with other scientists in his field at the aquatic sciences meeting of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), which was held in Granada, Spain.
“Established over 60 years ago, ASLO is an international organisation that promotes knowledge, education and awareness of freshwater and marine aquatic sciences.
My participation at the conference was an opportunity to meet distinguished scientists in my field and lay down the foundations of new collaborations. It was highly beneficial to my career in freshwater microbial ecology and a wholly positive experience,” he enthuses.
David also praised the support he’s received from the Graduate School, particularly highlighting the academic training and professional development that the school facilitates. “All of this helped focus the direction and methodology of my research and helped give me the confidence to succeed,” he states.