Editor’s note: Sara Volz is the grand prize winner of the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science and the Public. The 17-year-old high school senior from Colorado Springs, Colorado, used artificial selection to establish populations of algae cells with high oil content, making algae biofuels a sustainable and affordable fuel option.
It is possible to turn the natural oils algae produce into a renewable, carbon-neutral alternative to petroleum.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved chemistry and biology, but I’ve always craved understanding above all else. I believe that one of the most essential issues facing our society is that of finding a truly renewable, sustainable energy source to power the modern world. So when I first heard of algae biofuels, the topic was a perfect marriage of my passions for biochemistry and alternative energy.
The goal of my work was to make algae biofuels a more practical option by increasing algae oil yields, and thus fuel production. After a few years of simple experiments, I had the idea to use artificial selection -- or guided evolution -- to isolate populations of algae with high oil production.
I treated cultures with a herbicide that kills algae with low oil production by blocking a very important enzyme in oil synthesis. Instead of trying to use complex genetic approaches or environmental techniques with undesirable side effects, this strategy selects cells with high oil production by making such overproduction necessary for the cells to survive the effects of the herbicide.
In studying enzymes critical to algae’s ability to produce oil, I came across an entire class of herbicides that function by inhibiting such an enzyme. I immediately thought one of these could be used as a selection pressure tool for high oil producers.
In making this concept a reality, I had to contact scientists near and far for advice. When I needed the resources or equipment of a laboratory setting, I contacted researchers and asked to work in their facilities. Now, I have a working relationship with several universities with some truly wonderful students and professors.
To keep a close eye on my experiments, I turned my bedroom into a laboratory. I have chemicals, pipettes, a microscope, a (very clunky) centrifuge and various assorted scientific paraphernalia set up under my loft bed. In other words, my bedroom lab has everything I need to grow and monitor my bubbling flasks of algae.
In keeping with my scientific passions, I plan on working toward a Ph.D. and an academic career that involves a lot of research, starting by attending MIT in the fall of 2014. This news comes as a follow-up to my latest achievement -- the incredible honor of being named the top winner of the Intel Science Talent Search.
Honestly, with all the amazing work my peers have done, I’m still not sure how I won! The true prize I took away from the Intel Science Talent Search is seeing other students’ research and, more importantly, meeting the young people who will be my future colleagues.
We share knowledge and work with other scientists in order to make our own discoveries. In a community of scientists, we are all very supportive of one another and are thrilled to be with friends who share our interests and have the ability to teach us something new.