A High-Throughput Assay for Quantifying Phenotypic Traits of Microalgae


High-throughput methods for phenotyping microalgae are in demand across a variety of research and commercial purposes. Many microalgae can be readily cultivated in multi-well plates for experimental studies which can reduce overall costs, while measuring traits from low volume samples can reduce handling. Here we develop a high-throughput quantitative phenotypic assay (QPA) that can be used to phenotype microalgae grown in multi-well plates. The QPA integrates 10 low-volume, relatively high-throughput trait measurements (growth rate, cell size, granularity, chlorophyll a, neutral lipid content, silicification, reactive oxygen species accumulation, and photophysiology parameters: ETRmax, Ik, and alpha) into one workflow. We demonstrate the utility of the QPA on Thalassiosira spp., a cosmopolitan marine diatom, phenotyping six strains in a standard nutrient rich environment (f/2 media) using the full 10-trait assay. The multivariate phenotypes of strains can be simplified into two dimensions using principal component analysis, generating a trait-scape. We determine that traits show a consistent pattern when grown in small volume compared to more typical large volumes. The QPA can thus be used for quantifying traits across different growth environments without requiring exhaustive large-scale culturing experiments, which facilitates experiments on trait plasticity. We confirm that this assay can be used to phenotype newly isolated diatom strains within 4 weeks of isolation. The QPA described here is highly amenable to customisation for other traits or unicellular taxa and provides a framework for designing high-throughput experiments. This method will have applications in experimental evolution, modelling, and for commercial applications where screening of phytoplankton traits is of high importance.
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