Friday, July 8, 2011

Mysterious Algae of the Great Salt Plains

Well, here we are in the middle of summer, and I'm just now getting around to posting about February's program! Better late than never, right? I've got to bring this blog up to speed because I'm planning an exciting new season starting in September... more on that soon.

February 26, 2011 we had Dr. Bill Henley from the OSU Botany Department talking about the "Mysterious Algae of the Great Salt Plains." This algae is able to grow where nothing else would want to; out on the salt plains near Jet, Oklahoma. The water there gets as salty as it is possible to be, and the summer sun heats the ground like an oven. Yet these algae are able to survive and thrive!

Dr. Henley hopes the unique abilities of these algae will eventually prove useful in the manufacture of biofuels. But first he needs to understand how they work. He is trying to find out what elements are essential to this algae's survival. Do they need the heat to survive the salt? Do they need the salt to survive the heat? He hasn't yet worked out the right combination to allow them to thrive in the lab under similar conditions to those found on the salt plains. That's how science goes sometimes - you just have to keep trying different strategies until you hit on the right one.

As usual, I started things off with a song. See below for lyrics...

Dr. Henley shows us that algae are a wildly diverse group of organisms.  

Each kid got to take home a vial with algae in it to see if it would grow. Anybody have results to report?
My new song for this program was inspired by Dr. Henley's story about the day he discovered there were algae growing on the salt plains. His footsteps were breaking through the surface crust of salt, and he turned around to see green stuff in the water seeping in to fill the prints. This unexpected discovery lead to years of study and research!

Mysterious Algae of the Great Salt Plane (Green Footprint)

Leaning into the wind in the Oklahoma heat
Salt crust crunching beneath his feet
The biologist walked the flat white land
Shading his eyes from the sun with his hand
No grass no brush no bramble no tree
Sparkling salt was all the life he could see
Little did he know that something lay concealed
Until he took a look back at what his boot had revealed!

He’d left a green footprint
Where the surface of salt gave way
He’d left a green footprint
And out of the blue dawned a red letter day
For he could hardly contain the buzz in his brain
Having found a living algae on lifeless terrain!
He’d left a green footprint
In the middle of the Great Salt Plain!

He peered through his lens at a microscope slide
The algae he was growing in salt had died
So how could it live in its natural brine?
Perhaps it needed salt and searing sun combined?
First heat then salt. First salt then heat.
He tested every stressor the algae might meet
To discover how it weathered salty water intact
He knew the answer would come thanks to one funny fact

Repeat Chorus

And there are many people studying algae
Working on a way to make bio-fuel
So now he’s hoping to find that his salt resistant kind
Will do its part to help the planet cool

He'll leave a green footprint
On his journey of a thousand trials
He'll leave a green footprint
Using algae energy for low-carbon miles
Yeah, if the oil he can drain from that salt-loving strain
Can become a cheaper cleaner kind of high-octane
He'll leave a green footprint
Using algae from the great salt plain

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