New Research Aims to Unravel How Phosphorus Pollution Drives Toxic Blooms of Blue-Green Algae in the Great Lakes

August 3, 2010

NOAA has awarded New York-based Stony Brook University $285,895 as part of an anticipated three-year, nearly $500,000 project to determine how different kinds of phosphorous, a nutrient required by all plants for growth, trigger toxic blooms of blue-green algae in the Great Lakes.

The project will focus on the algal species Microcystis, which frequently causes massive and unsightly blooms in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Microcystis sometimes produces toxins that can cause acute and chronic illness in humans and is a growing problem that impacts drinking water and recreation worldwide. It has long been known that nutrient pollution, especially phosphorus, stimulates excessive growth or blooms this alga.

Phosphorus, however, can be present in several different chemical forms, which are difficult to measure. The researchers will test whether specific forms of phosphorus cause Microcystis to grow or become more toxic and whether controlling those forms might reduce blooms or their toxicity.

Using new information about how Microcystis genes regulate uptake and utilization of these different kinds of phosphorus, the researchers will develop new tools to overcome the measurement difficulties. They will then apply these tools during natural blooms in order to identify which types of phosphorous are most instrumental in stimulating bloom formation.

There are many types of phosphorus and knowing which types can trigger a toxic algal bloom is paramount,” said Christopher Gobler, associate professor at Stony Brook University and lead investigator from the project. “Coastal managers and local officials need this data to make important decisions to protect public health and the coastal ecosystem.

The investigators plan to host a workshop in Buffalo, N.Y., upon completion of the project with representatives from water treatment facilities, health departments, resource management agencies, educators, and the news media to share their findings on the role of phosphorous in the occurrence and toxicity of Microcystis blooms.

Support for these projects is provided through the NOAA Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) Program, which strives to understand the causes and impacts of HABs in order to predict their occurrence and minimize their impacts. The ECOHAB program was first authorized by the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act in 1998.

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