The head of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s aquaculture
resources team and a fellow Auburn University faculty member are working to gain
a deeper understanding of algal blooms, those prolific aquatic organisms that are
increasingly causing headaches not only for water treatment facilities, parks
and zoos but also for pond owners and others exposed to these bloom
They are also using this heightened understanding to educate
people about how they can prevent the spread of harmful blooms and to reduce
exposure to them.
A Special Concern: Cyanobacteria
This effort is made possible with funding from the U.S.
Dr. Russell “Rusty” Wright, an Extension fisheries
specialist, aquaculture resources team leader and associate professor in the
School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, and Dr. Alan Wilson,
associate professor of Fisheries, are especially interested in blue/green
algae, also known as cyanobacteria, taxa known to produce off-flavors in public
The two recently worked with a southeastern municipal water supplier to address
taste issues stemming from the presence of blue/green algae.
“Some of these algae can produce compounds that make water taste muddy,”
Wright says. “In this case, we determined that the city was drawing water from
a depth where the blue/green algae happened to be most concentrated — which was
surprising to us given that most bloom-forming algae form scums found primarily
on the water’s surface.”
“So our first suggestion was to draw the water from shallower depths away
from the heavy concentration of algae.”
Deeper Insights into Natural Factors and Human Practices
Wright and Wilson are also investigating how some chemical compounds
associated with these blooms, particularly methylisoborneol and geosmin, work
to compromise the taste of catfish and other aquaculture products.
“The aquaculture industry has been very concerned about taste-related
issues for a very long time,” Wright says, “because if you’re exposed to one
bad fish, you’re likely not going to eat another. And with enough people reacting this way, it can
lead to adverse economic effects.”
The professors also want to gain a deeper insight into the natural factorsand
human practices that contribute to the growth of toxic algal blooms, especially
in freshwater systems throughout the Southeast.
Threats to Animals and Humans
“Some of these blooms can produce toxins at high enough levels to threaten
animals,” Wright says, adding that dogs are typically the most vulnerable because
of their natural inclination to jump into water in pursuit of ducks or other
“They typically lick themselves after emerging from water and if their
fur is coated with toxic algae, they can suffer serious exposure,” he says.
In rare cases, cattle with access to contaminated ponds have died from
exposure to these toxins. Because of their small body size, children exposed to
toxic algae are considered especially susceptible.
Wright and Wilson are also monitoring the growing number of invasive
species, particularly Lyngbya, a cyanobaterium native to Asia. This algae forms large surface mats on the
bottom of lakes that quickly cover and smother native species.
The First Sustained Effort to Understand Algal Blooms
While Alabama’s warm, sunny climate is highly conducive to algal growth,
Wilson says this project represents the first sustained effort to build a
comprehensive picture of algal blooms in Alabama as well as throughout the
southeastern United States.
“That’s part the reason for the funding to start with,” Wilson says. “While
lots of people are studying algae in other states, there hasn’t been a
concerted effort in Alabama until now.”
Part of this effort involves working with state agency scientists in
Alabama and other states to collect and share water samples and water quality
data. This collaborate network now
includes 15 states and Puerto Rico.
A Good Example of a Landgrant University Partnership
Wilson says the project is a good example of how land-grant university research
and Extension often work hand-in-hand in the interests not only of advancing
the boundaries of science but also in training volunteers and building public consensus
behind the effort.
“While I collect and analyze some of the samples, Russell and I train the
volunteers to ensure the highest standards of water sampling.”
“One neat part of this project is that we’re leveraging a lot of
resources in other states and through other agencies to share these samples in
order to collect data and get a clearer picture of how these blooms spread and also
how they sometimes acquire harmful traits.”
Wilson ultimately hopes to use the data to construct a
series of models to predict where algal bloom-related issues are most likely to
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