Study: Better way needed to track algae toxins

Leonard N. Fleming, The Detroit News

Public officials and scientists need a different way to monitor toxins from algae blooms so they can be detected quicker and before they spread through the water supply, according to a study released Wednesday of the 2014 Toledo crisis that affected Monroe County.


Algae near Toledo water intake crib, in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio, Aug. 3, 2014.

There was a three-day ban on drinking water from Lake Erie in summer 2014 after water contaminated by toxic algae had been detected in East Toledo and Point Place. The ban affected 400,000 Ohio residents and another 30,000 residents in Monroe.

A study led by researchers at the University of Tennessee and James Madison University and including several UM scientists found a virus may have been involved in the water contamination that previously wasn’t detected.

By examining traits of the cyanobacteria organism responsible for scum-like algal blooms in Lake Erie, researchers found that it “was consistent with algal blooms from 2012 and 2013” except the microcystis cells had an “exceptionally severe viral infection.”

The study was published in the May 23 online edition of the Environmental Science and Technology journal.

“The study changes the way we think about how the toxin moves around aquatic systems and get into water supplies,” said Steven Wilhelm, professor of microbiology at the University of Tennessee who has done work on Lake Erie since 1997. “It may help us understand how these organisms persist in nature.”

Scientists say the viruses analyzed in the study only infect bacteria but not humans.

The study’s co-authors included Morgan Steffen of James Madison University, who began the work while transitioning from her microbiology doctoral studies at the University of Tennessee; Tim Davis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor; Michael McKay of Bowling Green State University; and Gregory Dick of the University of Michigan.

“This study provided insights into the environmental and biological conditions that led to the microcystis bloom and Toledo drinking water supply shutdown in 2014. It shows how molecular genetic data retrieved directly from water samples can shed light on the causes and impacts of toxic cyanobacteria blooms,” said Dick, an associate professor in UM’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

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