Harmful algal bloom forecasting: Chasing toxin producers

It started with “drunk” pelicans. While studying aquatic sciences at the University of Santa Barbara, Liz Tobin noticed that there was something wrong with the fish-gulping birds.  They exhibited unusual behavior, getting hit by cars, and sometimes simply falling out of the sky. The pelicans suffered from seizures induced by domoic acid poisoning, a particularly dangerous affliction when it hit mid-flight.  Biologists traced the source of the poisoning to rapid springtime growth (bloom) of Pseudo-nitzschia, a tiny, single-celled organism, distantly related to the giant kelps thriving in nearby coastal waters.  Small fish and shellfish consume these algae, and although they are not harmed, they store the toxins produced by algal cells and pass them on to their predators, including seabirds and marine mammals.

Scientists refer to these incidents as harmful algal blooms, or HABs.  They are not restricted to the waters of southern California, though.  And Pseudo-nitzschia cells are not the only culprits.  There are a number of other algal species that can cause trouble for local marine ecosystems. HABs occur in coastal waters around the globe, with larger and more frequent blooms being linked to a warming sea surface [1] and also to increased nutrient runoff from land [2], which is a common by-product of animal or plant agriculture.  Local economies suffer due to tourism losses and local residents can’t harvest shellfish from their beaches.

After wrapping up a bachelor’s degree at UCSB, Liz moved on to graduate school at the University of Washington so that she could study harmful algal species in Puget Sound.  One of the species she’s interested in is Alexandrium catanella, another single-celled marine alga that produces a suite of deadly neurotoxins causing paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP.  Alexandrium blooms can become so intense that they give the water a reddish-brown tinge, often called a “red tide” (although they don’t always cause water discoloration).


If you eat a shellfish that has accumulated Alexandrium toxins, a series of unpleasant events unfolds. First, your fingers and toes will tingle and your lips will feel numb.  Next, you may become nauseous and unsteady on your feet.  If the toxins hit you at full force, your diaphragm will become paralyzed, which means that you are unable to pull oxygen into your lungs.  Without prolonged artificial respiration, a severe case of PSP can lead to death in a matter of hours.

In recent years, poisoning cases in Washington State have been rare, but they do happen. Washington Department of Health aims to prevent outbreaks by regularly testing shellfish along Puget Sound beaches.  Commercially harvested shellfish are tested exhaustively before hitting the markets. Unfortunately, it’s tough to predict the severity, location, and timing of an Alexandrium bloom ahead of time. That’s where Liz’s work fits in: she’d like to improve our ability to forecast where those blooms will happen ahead of time so that public health officials, fisheries managers, and the shellfish industry have more time to react.


Alexandrium cells have a comfort zone, she explains.  They grow and divide furiously when the days are long and the surface waters are warm.  Once the spring bloom ramps up, zooplankton, fish, and shellfish feed on the algae, eventually decimating Alexandrium populations by early to mid summer.  Less Alexandrium cells means less food for their predators, and their predators begin to die off or find food elsewhere.  By late August, with newly lowered predation pressures and plenty of sunlight, a second bloom typically occurs.  As the season draws to a close, Alexandrium  algal cells feel the effects of shorter days and less sunlight.  They struggle to grow and divide and at some point cut their losses and transit down to the sediment to wait out winter.  -Settled into the muddy seafloor, they shift to survival mode, also known as the “cyst” stage.  The exact conditions that send them into their cyst stage are poorly understood, as are  the details of how they wake up and make their way to the surface come springtime.

Liz is particularly interested in how the Alexandrium cells swim, even though they are mostly at the whim of the currents.  Tides rush in and out twice each day, racing through narrows and washing languidly over mud flats.  Rivers pour into Puget Sound with irregular pulses of freshwater from rain and springtime snow melt. Alexandrium algal cells propel themselves through the water using a small whip-like appendage called a flagellum, but because of their tiny size – only about a third of the width of a single human hair – they can’t overcome even the weakest currents. However, if Liz knows their vertical swimming capabilities, she can better understand how quickly Alexandrium cells migrate from the seafloor to the surface (where blooms occur) and back again.

A lot of researchers, Liz included, study Alexandrium in the lab.  They blend solutions of water and various chemicals to imitate seawater, and observe how the cells behave and react to a variety of environmental triggers.  One of the labs she works in is a tiny bunker-like space on the second floor of the Ocean Teaching Building.  Two long black tables running along either side of the room are covered by a hodge-podge of beakers, elaborate video recording setups, and circuit boards sprouting nests of red and white wires.  At the back of the room, a giant insulated door opens to a fully programmable walk-in refrigerator, where algal cells can be subjected to controlled shifts in temperature and light.

Even at their best, however, lab experiments can’t possibly recreate the many complexities that exist in the natural world.  Liz knew that if she could monitor the emergence of the Alexandrium cells from the sediments she could combine those observations with detailed fluid flow models to better predict where the cells would eventually concentrate.  The only problem was that there were no “off-the-shelf” instruments that were capable of doing what she wanted.  So she set out to build her own.


When she starts describing the instrument she’s working on, I interrupt.  Pushing my notebook and pen across the table, I ask her to sketch her design for me.  She draws a tube a few inches in diameter, sitting upright on the seabed.  On one side of the tube a camera in waterproof housing points into a tiny window to capture any Alexandrium cells swimming past.  The end of a plankton trap sits on top, ready to catch any upward-swimming cells so they can be later compared with the video. She pauses her drawing to look up at me.  “It’s just like what we would do in the lab,” she says, “but instead of a camera looking at a tank, I have a camera looking into a chamber on the seafloor”.

As of mid-July 2013, Liz’s prototype of her seafloor camera was nearly ready to be deployed for testing.  If it works, she’ll try to capture Alexandrium cells emerging from the seafloor just prior to the late-summer bloom.  Her vision for the future, she tells me, is a network of these instruments deployed across Puget Sound, monitoring cyst emergence in real time.  Instead of only knowing about blooms once they are in full swing, they could be predicted days or weeks in advance, avoiding unnecessary closures and potentially saving lives.

[1] Climate change and harmful algal blooms, NCCOS http://www.cop.noaa.gov/stressors/extremeevents/hab/current/CC_habs.aspx

[2] Anderson, Donald M., Patricia M. Glibert, and Joann M. Burkholder. “Harmful algal blooms and eutrophication: nutrient sources, composition, and consequences.” Estuaries 25, no. 4 (2002): 704-726.


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