UD graduate student Karen Pelletreau
Karen Pelletreau, a doctoral candidate in marine biology–biochemistry at the University of Delaware’s College of Marine Studies in Lewes, Delaware, was awarded the Wilce Prize at the 43rd Northeast Algal Symposium this spring. She received the award for her research on the intertidal brown alga Fucus vesiculosus, also known as bladderwrack.
Brown algae are ecologically and economically important. They provide habitat and food for many organisms. In addition, brown algae are harvested for food and medicinal applications. In 1812, for example, Fucus vesiculosus was discovered to be a natural source of iodine and historically was used to treat goiter, a swelling of the thyroid gland.
Pelletreau is investigating how Fucus vesiculosus produces the organic compounds called phlorotannins, which are found in most species of brown algae. In fact, phlorotannins can comprise 15 to 20 percent of algae’s dry mass by weight. These carbon-containing compounds are believed to protect algae from sunlight as well as from the organisms that feed on them. In addition, phlorotannins are now being studied for use as anticancer agents and other biomedical purposes.
“I am using various methods to try and find a gene that essentially acts as an on/off switch for the production of phlorotannins,” said Pelletreau. “More than likely, this gene will be turned on or off by environmental factors that affect the amount of phlorotannins in an alga, such as the availability of nutrients or light intensity.”
In the past, research has concentrated on the importance of phlorotannins to brown algae. However, an understanding of how the algae produce these compounds, as well as the factors that affect phlorotannin production remain unknown. According to Pelletreau, finding the gene will provide a tighter, more complete explanation of phlorotannins as well as how brown algae are able to survive in the marine environment.
“I was very surprised to receive the award,” said Pelletreau. “Although molecular methods have been successfully used in a number of ways, they have never been used to study the mechanisms of phlorotannin production. It is a nontraditional approach, and this award shows that my research has the interest and support of the scientific community.”
In conjunction with the award, Pelletreau was named student liaison for the Northeast Algal Society.