You might think it best to get algae out of your water supply, but an entrepreneurial effort based in the lake-dotted Peterborough region of Ontario is working hard to enlist algae in the effort to make your water as clean as possible. Not just any algae, of course. This special variety, known as Euglena gracillis, has a formidable appetite for pollutants such as phosphorus, heavy metals and even silver nanoparticles.

The organism’s potential was first identified by Adam Noble several years ago, when he was a high school student worried about pollution in a nearby lake. After noticing how algae wreak havoc on aquatic environments by consuming all available nutrients, Noble wondered if they could be altered to consume undesirable material instead. After some informal experimentation in the family sauna, where he demonstrated that Euglena would consume particles of nanosilver, Noble began working with Trent University biology professor Neil Emery on a science fair project that would showcase the ability of this algae to do even more.  

The result was definitive enough to warrant the founding of a company, Noble Purification, which is now designing a system that should eventually find its way into a working municipal wastewater stream. The firm is building a prototype of this system at the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment, which is operated by Fleming College in Peterborough. “The facility will give us the opportunity to test our idea on a larger scale,” says Andressa Lacerda, Noble’s chief operating officer and a PhD student at Trent. Lacerda notes that research so far has only dealt with batches of about 20 litres of water, but this new undertaking will scale that up significantly. Eventually, she wants to see the technology incorporated into Peterborough’s water treatment plant.

Meanwhile, a group of Trent University researchers is helping the firm examine other applications for Euglena. “It pretty much survives under any conditions, from very acidic pH to very alkaline pH,” says principal investigator Céline Guéguen, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Sciences and Biogeochemistry. “I’m interested in its ability to absorb mining effluents.” 

Other researchers will be sequencing the genome, perhaps teasing out even more intriguing possibilities from the algae. For her part, Lacerda expects such fundamental inquiry to yield some worthwhile discoveries. “So far we have the feeling that we’re just scratching the surface of what Euglena can do,” she says.