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UTSA's Ruoting Pei receives $290K from NSF for algal bloom research

Ruoting Pei

UTSA Assistant Professor Ruoting Pei studies algae in her lab.
(Photo by Deborah Sillimian Wolfe)

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(Aug. 6, 2014) -- Ruoting Pei, assistant professor in the UTSA College of Engineering Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), has been awarded a grant of $290,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support her project, "The Role of Cell-to-Cell Communication in Microcystis Aeruginosa Blooms."

"I was first interested in the communication of bacteria -- how they talk to each other," said Pei. "They communicate with a chemical language, and they use this communication to do a lot of things. For example, excessive growth of cyanobacteria, also called blue green algae, in water bodies causes harmful algal blooms. These algal blooms pose severe health risks to the users of these drinking and recreation waters due to the cyanotoxins produced."

Not only do the algal blooms pose risks to humans, they also deplete the oxygen supply of the water they occupy, making it impossible for fish or water plants to survive. Pei is working on a way to "put earplugs" in the algae so that the bacteria cannot communicate with each other to produce toxins.

"The proposed research focuses on quorum sensing, the general mode of cell-to-cell communication in the bacterial kingdom via chemical 'languages,'" said Pei. "If we can cause a disruption of quorum sensing, the communication between the bacteria, we predict a decrease of cell growth and toxin production and a reduction of cell surface charges. We are trying to put 'earplugs' in the bacteria so they cannot communicate with each other so that they stop getting together and produce toxic results."

In addition to hiring a graduate student with the grant funds, Pei also plans to develop educational outreach programs for local, underrepresented high school students.

"The main purpose of working with local schools is to increase awareness of the threat of algal blooms to the environment, promote excitement for careers in environmental science and engineering fields, and increase the students' ability to understand scientific and engineering issues," said Pei. "I also plan to develop graduate courses and provide research opportunities here at UTSA for undergraduate and graduate students."

Pei, who has been at UTSA for five years, says she is excited to be part of a university with a rapidly growing research agenda, and she is very happy with the support she has received though the CEE department and the College of Engineering.

"This is an outstanding achievement for Dr. Pei and the CEE department," said Thomas Papagiannakis, chair of the CEE department. "NSF grants are very competitive and being successful in competing for them attests to the quality of our research program. Dr. Pei's efforts in establishing a bioenvironmental laboratory are being rewarded. Her research is complementing the research activities of the newly formed Water Institute of Texas, and it is expected to have a significant impact on student training."

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