Shock, horror! But no surprises there you might think. After all, teenagers’ bedrooms are notorious ‘no-go’ areas for their parents – and others of a sensitive nature – and anything can develop (even new life forms!) in the insalubrious environment contained therein. But this is no ordinary tale of teenage grot. Rather, it is a carefully planned experiment carried out by 17-year old Sara Volz who was trying ‘to use guided evolution, so artificial selection, to isolate populations of algae cells with abnormally high oil content’.
Entitled ‘Optimizing algae biofuels: artificial selection to improve lipid synthesis’, her investigation used the herbicide sethoxydim to kill algae with low levels of acetyl-CoA carboxylase (ACCase), an enzyme crucial to lipid synthesis. Under this strong environmental pressure, the remaining artificially selected algae cells revealed significant increases in lipid accumulation. If those cells can be sustained, artificial selection could be used to increase microalgal oil yields and make algae biofuel viable. Well, her inquisitiveness within an imaginative laboratory setting(!) earned Sara (representing Cheyenne Mountain High School, Colorado Springs, USA) top prize in the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), ‘the nation’s [i.e. USA’s] most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors’. The US$100 000 scholarship should go a long way to funding her studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) where she is destined this autumn. As will what remains of the US$50 000 Davidsons Fellowship Scholarship Sara won in 2012 for a project entitled, ‘Enhancing algae biofuels: investigation of the environmental and enzymatic factors effecting algal lipid synthesis’. More usually employed as a post-emergence herbicide to control grass weeds in broad-leaved crops, sethoxydim apparently also has ‘indoor uses’. However, one imagines that the good people at Cornell didn’t envisage such an indoor use![Now, I don’t want to be picky, but to subject these claims to proper scrutiny, etc, we do need to know what the algae were. So, I did my own research, and eventually managed to find that Sara has ‘worked with several different strains – the ones I use currently are Chlorella vulgaris and Nannochloropsis salina…‘. But that information seems to predate the 2013 Intel STS project. So, we’re still uncertain of the species. Nevertheless, this young scientist is definitely one to watch! And not just because she was listed as one of the top 10 teen inventors in the USA by Popular Science magazine as far back as September 2011 – Ed.].