Learning is Fun in France: HPLC Lab Training in Villefranche for Phytoplankton Pigment Analysis

Arrival in Nice and Villefranche


Me (Johan) on Èze hilltop

In June this year I had the opportunity to travel to the south of France for lab training on the analysis of phytoplankton pigment samples. I arrived in Nice over the weekend and had a chance to explore a bit and also visit Monaco and see James Bond’s Casino Royal (Photo Casino). I also visited the French perfume factory, Fragonard, in Èze, a hilltop medieval village on a cliff overlooking the French Mediterranean Sea with a bird’s eye view of the surrounding coast. Here I learned that it takes tons and tons of flower petals to produce a small quantity of pure perfume. This put the prices into perspective! With the tour guide I also got to go around the famous Monte Carlo race track. I now finally understand why this is such a famous track, due to its short straits and very tight corners and amazing tunnel straight. The south of France is clearly a popular holiday destination and with the old buildings and narrow streets, the markets and the beautiful beaches, it is clear why so many of the mega yachts make this a port of call. The area, however, is not home only tourist attractions. The lab I would be going to was located in Villefranche-sur-Mer. It is situated only a few kilometres from Nice and easily accessed by bus or train.


Monaco Palace Guard Marching












My time at LOV:


Harbor in front of LOV building

I have been working with phytoplankton pigment data for almost three years now – using it mainly for determining the phytoplankton community structure within various samples from the Atlantic and Indian Southern Ocean. The pigment data is derived from filter samples subjected to High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). For the past few years this has been done for us by an oceanography-focussed HPLC lab in France, Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche (LOV) – CNRS. Now that I’m widening my utilisation of this pigment data, (not only to use it for phytoplankton structure determination but also what the pigments themselves can tell us about their photoprotective or health states and the extent of grazing) it is essential to better understand how these pigments are analysed and why.


Jospehine, me (Johan) and Celine in HPLC lab



For this I went to the LOV – CNRS for a 5-day informal course on the analysis of phytoplankton pigments by HPLC which was facilitated by Josephine Ras and Cèline Demier. First, I had two days of lectures and discussions on all the basic theory of HPLC and phytoplankton pigment detection, from the various pigments themselves to the integration of peaks on chromatograms. The pigment theory also covered certain basics on pigment and their photoprotection against light as well as degradation of certain pigments and how this needs to be included when sampling for pigment, assessing pigment analytical results and the interpretation of the final pigment concentration data. Josephine included also on where I could find further information these type of pigment subjects which would definitely come in handy during my envisioned PhD research where I plan to make more use of pigment concentrations themselves. I also received an overview of the inner workings of all the different components within the HPLC system as well as the different methods out there being used and the pros and cons of each. I also saw and followed their whole lab process from filter extractions, solution preparations to care taking and handling of the samples in cool air and dim light. Another important aspect was how to efficiently use this expensive machine and some basic maintenance and areas of concern to watch out for during analysis.

Other than the actual scheduled theory lectures or lab techniques I also learned a great deal from them about bettering research or interpretation of pigment data that I could only have learned by being there and have a chat around a cup of coffee. I realized the importance of analytical procedures to be followed during pigment studies and that Stellenbosch University is up there with the work we are doing. Between the theory lectures, practical lab work and informal discussions I learned a great deal, including how much I still need to learn, and that (for my French colleagues) after fifteen years of experience in the field of marine pigment analysis and research you can still learn something new. The training definitely provided the basis I will use in what I hope to be many pigment studies to come.


Last day: Josephine, me (Johan) and Celine

Written by Johan Viljoen


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