Alexi Schnur is attempting to isolate Lake Erie viruses that infect the bloom-forming bacterium Microcystis, the algae responsible for toxic algal blooms in Western Lake Erie.

Alexi Schnur, an undergraduate who has worked in the lab of Dr. Melissa Duhaime since her first week freshman year, was awarded a prestigious American Society for Microbiology Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Schnur is attempting to isolate and describe viruses infecting the harmful algal bloom-forming bacterium, Microcystis, that ravages Lake Erie each summer.

Schnur is a currently a junior in the Michigan Biology Academy Scholars Program (M-BIO) and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at the University of Michigan. Duhaime, a research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is Schnur’s mentor on her research project: “Microcystis Viruses - Hunting the Killers of Lake Erie's Algal Blooms.” Schnur is an interdisciplinary astronomy major who plans to declare microbiology as another major once she finishes the introductory classes. She’s been interested in microbiology since becoming an undergraduate, which led her to virology studies in the Duhaime lab, where she is an undergraduate researcher.

“Along with fellow U-M undergrad, Paulina Devlin, I am currently trying to isolate Microcystis viruses on seven different cultures of non-colonial strains of the bacterium Microcystis,” Schnur said. Non-colonial strains are bacterial strains that are not forming colonies, but are single-cellular strains. “Viruses were collected weekly from Lake Erie during the 2014 and 2015 bloom seasons, May through November. We then apply these to the Microcystis cultures and monitor for clearing of the culture, which would indicate infection and the presence of Microcystis-infecting viruses.

“Our work is not motivated by trying to eliminate the bloom. We suspect that there is a complicated relationship between Microcystis and its viruses in Lake Erie, and it is improbable that one virus exists that would kill the bloom-forming Microcystis in all places and across the entire bloom season. Isolating a virus from Lake Erie that is found to infect Microcystis would be an important step to learning more about these relatively unknown viruses and the role they play in the evolution of the bloom during a summer season. We also have metagenomic data of the Microcystis viruses during the 2014 bloom that would allow us to possibly identify and track a Microcystis virus through the genomic data to learn about their evolution and ecology if we are unable to isolate a virus in the lab.”

They have evidence of Lake Erie viruses that have killed several strains of Microcystis.  Their next challenge is to isolate these infecting viruses and reproduce the results, which she said is proving to be a real challenge.

Currently, Schnur plans to attend graduate school for microbiology to obtain her doctorate degree. A future career track she is considering is to research extremophiles (microbes that live in/on inhospitable environments).

The ASM fellowship is aimed at highly competitive students who wish to pursue graduate careers (Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D.) in microbiology. Fellows have the opportunity to conduct full-time summer research at their home institution with an ASM mentor and present their research results at the 2016 ASM Microbe Meeting in Boston, Mass. if their abstract is accepted.

Each fellow receives up to a $4,000 stipend, a two-year ASM student membership, and funding for travel expenses to the ASM Research Capstone Institute and ASM Microbe Meeting.

The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of over 39,000 scientists and health professionals. ASM's mission is to promote and advance the microbial sciences.