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The Algal Microbiome: Friends and Foes

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ALFF (The Algal Microbiome: Friends and Foes)

Reporting period: 2017-01-01 to 2018-12-31

Globally, algal aquaculture is developing rapidly and is a multi-billion dollar industry employing millions of people. As any friend of Asian cuisine knows, algae are an important and healthy source of food that is growing in popularity, but we use algae also in many other industries. In the chemical and pharmaceutical industries algae serve as fertilizers, soil conditioners and for wastewater treatment. The energy industry has been developing biofuels from both microalgae and seaweeds. Algae are also popular ingredients in the cosmetics industry too. On the other hand, some algae are perceived as a nuisance, for example green tides that develop as a result of pollution. In fact, algae are incredibly diverse, with a huge ecological importance both in marine and freshwater environments.

In order to understand their role in ecosystems, to support their cultivation or to limit their unwanted proliferation, it is important to know what algae need to flourish, and to control their diseases and pests. At present, the single biggest biological challenge to further develop algal aquaculture is to first understand and then control both beneficial and harmful microbes – the microbial flora or algal microbiome. The main aims of ALFF research are to: 1) identify, classify and utilise naturally occurring algal symbionts and pathogens; 2) tackle inter- and intra-species signalling and chemical ecology in aquaculture, the natural environment and simplified systems 3) to harness state of the art genomics, molecular and biochemical techniques to characterise these interactions
The overarching aim of programme is to training 14 PhD students within this multinational consortium whilst bringing a fundamental scientific change in our understanding of these interactions, leading to the development of superior mass algal cultivation and biocontrol strategies. Over the period 2015-2018, ALFF has already resulted in over 20 peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals.
The ALFF project started on 1 January 2015. The consortium comprises 10 beneficiaries from six European countries, including three private sector members. Our vision within this programme was to empower each of PhD students towards developing a unique scientific profile. Scientifically, the programme sits at the crossroad of major concepts: 1) the immense functional and ecological diversity of algae; 2) their increasing relevance to mankind, via their ecological importance, their exponentially-growing cultivation, and nearly untapped biotechnological potential; 3) the ongoing revolution in DNA sequencing and analytical technologies, which underpins the development of big data-driven research; 4) the microbiome paradigm shift, whereby the importance of microbes interacting with host macro-organisms is increasingly been recognised. Thus, each PhD project blended a unique combination of biological models, interdisciplinary approaches (esp. omics-related) to address a broad range of fundamental or applied research questions.
The first two years of ALFF comprised the start-up period with the recruitment of 15 PhD students, followed by their registration in a PhD programme and the initiation of their project. In the second reporting period, our focus has been to pursue the personal development of each ESR, through the combination of research work, secondments, courses and scientific events. We could not avert the resignation of ESR13 after 18 months, which led to the withdrawal of Applied Maths as a consortium beneficiary. Over the period 2015-2018, ALFF has already resulted in over 20 peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals. Six courses have been organised by the network, as well as four progress workshops. Three of them were integrated with some the highest-profile international conferences.
The ALFF project foresees significant impact in three key areas:
• enhancement of research and innovation-related human resources: each of our student has demonstrably developed a unique, interdisciplinary scientific profile of exceptional quality. Their language, presentation, and other transversal skills have been thoroughly worked on.
• structuring PhD training at European level and strengthening European innovation capacity: ALFF has worked in a highly collaborative manner. We are most proud that over 50% of the resulting publications are co-signed by at least two ALFF institutions, with this proportion due to increase to approximately 75% once all manuscripts still in preparation are completed. A third of all ALFF publications (in preparation or already accepted) are co-authored by at least one non-academic partner, also showing excellent cross-sectoral collaboration.
• Extensive teaching, communication and dissemination plans have been unrolled throughout the action, thus maximising the diversity of audiences reached by the programme.