The Big Algal Open Experiment

Dr Paolo Bombelli (Biochemistry, University of Cambridge), Dr Brenda Parker (Biochemical Engineering, UCL), Dr James Lawrence (Biochemical Engineering, UCL), Marc Jones (PhD student in Computational and Systems Biology, John Innes Centre)

Algae are amazing: they recycle over half of the carbon dioxide we exhale, and form the basis of many food chains, yet we still understand very little about how they grow. In future, we may wish to cultivate algae for food, fuel, or to clean up wastewater so we need to understand more about their biology! The Big Open Algae Experiment team aim to help us enhance our algal knowledge by performing the biggest parallel algae experiment in history. They are inviting universities and citizen scientists to participate in an open-source data collection experiment on outdoor microalgal growth.

Up and down the UK, they’ll be running experiments using a bioreactor they designed and asking people to submit their recordings of how well the algae are growing. Following and recording the algal growth will be easy and fun. This is thanks to a smart-phone app: the Alg-app. The Alg-app will enable everyone having access to a smartphone to get involved. During the OpenPlant Fund project, low-cost bioreactors, the website and app were constructed (

In this last two years we have been running the “Big Algae Experiment” and have interacted with school groups at Latitude Festival, the New Scientist Festival, Rugby School and through events in Cambridge. Big Algae was showcased at the CRI, Paris and at the Open Source Tech conference in Santiago, Chile. As part of UCL Engineering’s programme of CPD activities for teachers, we have also organised sessions with STEM teachers to demonstrate the bioreactors and train them in how to run the experiments. The concept is being developed into an ‘Algaegotchi’ pet with the Iaac Advanced Architecture Group in Barcelona.