Mind the gap: a systematic map of light variation in algal aquaculture allows us to identify research gaps

Algae need light to grow but how much light and how it should be delivered are important questions in aquaculture. Even in nature, light does not fall evenly; cloud cover, shading, water movement, water depth can all affect the amount of light algae experience and the time frame it is experienced over. So, what is the best light delivery regime to maximise yield in algal aquaculture? And, importantly, do we have the information to answer this question?

PhD student Belinda Comerford, under the supervision of Nick Paul and Dustin Marshall, has assessed what studies exist that look at variation in light and, crucially, where the gaps in research are. She used a systematic mapping technique where she followed a strict protocol with clearly articulated methods so other researchers will be able to add to the ‘map’ as the field develops.

Once she had settled on her search terms she entered them into the Web of Science database and assessed all the returned studies against the inclusion criteria. From the 10,000 studies returned from initial searches, she retained 212 for further analysis.

Belinda wanted to know what scale light manipulations happened (was it seconds or weeks?) and how long experiments lasted for. What pattern did researchers use when they manipulated light; was it square (light on or off), sinusoidal (gradual increase and decrease in light intensities) or sawtooth (jagged)? How big were the culture vessels used in the experiments? How many generations of algae were subject to the light manipulations?

Once she had coded all the studies that had met the inclusion criteria for her questions of interest, Belinda was able to determine areas where a rich knowledge-base ripe for further synthesis exists and, conversely, where we don’t have enough evidence to reliably assess impacts of variable light regimes on algal yield.

Belinda found that we have a good understanding of light variation on the immediate growth dynamics of microalgae over short time scales – milliseconds to day/night cycles.  But we don’t know the long-term implications of this light variation on algal cultures.

After completing the systematic map, Belinda can confidently point to where research is best directed to inform aquaculture. She recommends future studies focus on larger scale culture vessels and light variation regimes (sinusoidal and sawtooth) that better mimic production settings. Experiments that vary light on the scale of seconds, minutes and hours and that last for multiple months using cultures where biomass is kept relatively constant, through harvesting, will be particularly relevant for industry.

While Belinda recognises that some of these recommendations are demanding, she hopes by identifying the knowledge gaps, it will encourage researchers to tackle the formidable challenge of working at larger scales.

This research is published in the Journal of Applied Phycology.

Belinda recommends that future studies focus on larger culture vessels and light variation regimes that better mimic production settings.