Scientists converge to share research on harmful algae

October 25, 2017

It was the reason residents in Toledo, Ohio, had contaminated drinking water in 2014. It was the reason Washington and Oregon had to close its Dungeness crab fishery a year later. It was even the reason fish were dying in inconceivable numbers in Chesapeake Bay in 1997.

In each case, a body of water took in excess nutrients and algae responded, growing like weeds. Then, they produced toxins to create a harmful algal bloom.

“The algae that don’t produce a toxin are more of a nuisance than a human health problem,” said Allen Place, who studies harmful algal blooms at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology. “These other guys, they’ll produce toxins that will make you sick, cause amnesia, and actually cause your heart to stop, in some cases.”  

Harmful algal blooms are an environmental threat that scientists like Place have spent nearly two decades monitoring, but the biggest threat scientists face may be what happens next. Changes in the climate are increasing water temperatures and raising new questions in the field, but many of the experts are reaching retirement age and have no one to replace them, he said.

“There is a big gap,” Place said.

Training the next generation is the theme for the 9th U.S. Symposium on Harmful Algae, which Place will host at IMET in Baltimore from November 11-17.  

A scanning electron micrograph of Karlodinium veneficum cell attached to a prey cryptophyte in the process of ingestion. Photo by Vince Lovko

The symposium brings together the nation’s top harmful algal bloom experts every two years to share their research and experiences and prompt discussions about causes, mitigation, and more. Unique to this symposium is the addition of training workshops designed to groom that next generation. The workshops aim to teach identification of the algae and detect their toxins, which isn’t always easy in this case. Pat Glibert and Todd Kana from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory, will host a workshop on measuring the efficiency of photosynthesis in these algae.

“This is the issue that all the recent work has found. Things that we call one species are actually probably multiple species. Some are toxic, some are not toxic, and it’s not clear why the toxic strain sometimes blooms. You can’t just go out and look at colored water and say it’s bad. It may not be bad; it may actually be good as food for oysters,” Place said.

Harmful algal blooms haven’t been in the national spotlight very long. An outbreak of a dinoflagellate called Pfiesteria piscicida and its brother in arms Karlodinium veneficum in Chesapeake Bay in 1997 raised the consciousness and galvanized funding.

The algae killed countless numbers of fish, punched a hole in the state’s seafood industry, and ultimately lead government agencies to start earmarking money for scientific studies and management.

About two years later, Dr. Don Anderson, senior scientist for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, hosted the first U.S. symposium at his Massachusetts-based institution. This November, he will close the symposium with a discussion on the future of the U.S. HAB Program.  

All of these blooms are effectively induced by increased nutrients and the elevated water temperature due to extreme environments.

Allen Place
Professor and biochemist, Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology


Since 1997, harmful algae have left a mark in other regions of the country, such as the cases in Ohio, Oregon, and Washington.

The algae toxin that closed the Dungeness crab fishery was domoic acid. It’s produced by a marine planktonic diatom called Pseudo-nitzschia. This neurotoxin accumulates in shellfish and, when eaten, is harmful to humans. It is capable of entering the brain and killing cells there, resulting in sickness, memory loss and brain damage in humans.

A bloom of algae coats a lake. Photo by Jane Thomas/IAN

“It’s been an issue there for a while,” Place said of Pseudo-nitzschia, “it’s just that these strange, extreme climate things happen. This thing called the blob, which was a body of water that was 4 degrees warmer and persistent for a long period of time, engulfed the entire West Coast and that allowed this Pseudo-nitzschia to really, really take off.”

Continued success of early-warning monitoring programs hinges on future scientists, managers, and technicians, especially with climate change impacting where blooms may occur.

“All of these blooms are effectively induced by increased nutrients and the elevated water temperature due to extreme environments,” Place said. “We’re starting to see tropical species moving north. There’s this really interesting thing that now happens in the south part of the Chesapeake Bay where it’s bioluminescent. That’s something that usually was only attributed to the Caribbean, but in the south part of the Bay, in the York River, we have bioluminescence because Alexandrium monilatum has found its way into the Bay because of increased water temperatures.”

Over-application of herbicides and pesticides on farm fields can result in excess toxins and nutrients reaching the waterways. Photo by Jane Hawkey, Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

An excess of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizer, is entering streams and rivers, and eventually waterways like Chesapeake Bay, through run-off, and allowing algae to flourish there.

“We wanted to make our lawns nice and green, so we put fertilizers on it. We wanted to have lots of corn per acre. Unfortunately, those require putting excess nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil, but they never get completely used up,” Place said. “If there’s excess rain or no cover crops, those excess nutrients go into our rivers and our tributaries. The solution is to figure out better management and keep nutrients in the ground.”

He invited two of his colleagues from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to the conference to discuss the environmental trade-off of meeting global food demand. Drs. Xin Zhang and Eric Davidson of Appalachian Laboratory have been leading an effort to establish a sustainable agriculture matrix that could create a grading system for how countries balance nutrient load with food production.

Davidson has been studying the environmental effects of nitrogen and Zhang has focused on phosphorous, and the two are teaming up again to present “Manure Happens: The Consequences of Feeding Seven Billion Human Carnivores.”

Davidson was glad for the invitation and said he hopes to present a broader perspective for an audience that has to spend so much time focusing on the tiny details.  

“The people who study harmful algal blooms are doing very detailed technical work and they’re studying physiology, reproduction, all kinds of different things, but they appreciate opportunities—which they don’t often get—to step back and see how their work fits into this broader context. I see this as kind of an innovative and visionary thing Al is doing. He knows at some point they will jump in the deep end, but not to lose perspective.”

Rosemary Jagus and Tsvetan Bachvaroff of the Institute of Marine & Environmental Science, and Michael Gonsior of Chesapeake Biological Laboratory are also the on event's schedule. Other event speakers include Dr. James Cloern, senior research scientist for U.S. Geological Survey; Dr. Todd Rex Miller, associate professor of aquatic environmental microbiology and chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee; Dr. Clarissa Anderson, executive director for Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System; and Dr. Don Anderson of Woods Hole.