Nature.com reports today that China is experiencing what they believe is the first-ever “brown tide,” or large algae bloom of brown algae. This bloom is threatening fisheries along China’s very long coast. So just in case you thought Sodus’s problem was just a quirk of the current season, you should be aware that in fact the “brown tide” is affecting three separate countries’ shorelines.
To be clear: nothing about the brown tide is similar to the Upstate area’s problems, genetically speaking. Not only are the species of algae different, the “blue-green algae” currently plaguing Sodus Bay’s waters is in fact a bacteria, not an algae. But in every case, additional run-off from fertilizer and other substrates are contributing to the issue:
In the past few decades, China’s rapid pace of population growth and agriculture development has led to more nutrients being discharged into the sea — in the form of sewage, animal manure and fertilizers. That excess has caused massive algal blooms since the 1990s, especially at the Yangtze estuary. Those blooms have had a red or green hue, known as red or green tides, because of the pigments of the algal species responsible.
“The recent brown-tide outbreaks may be the latest manifestation of increasing nutrient loads in China’s coastal waters,” says Gobler.
Not discussed in this article: what role a modest increase in oceanic temperatures might be playing.
Seems like every year, at least once, the Durand-Eastman Park beach closes. This same pattern is echoed around the lake for a variety of reasons, but the biggest and most dangerous reason is the presence of an algae bloom. Algae blooms happen when, for one reason or another, large quantities of algae are produced in a local area. Algae can starve the water of oxygen and poison it for swimmers and wildlife, alike. Minor blooms such as those that close beaches might get you sick. An algae bloom run amok could spell the end of countless species within an ecosystem.
But Dr. Andre Hudson, a professor at RIT, may have found the beginnings of a solution to the problem. Dr. Hudson discovered a means by which the normal photosynthetic process in algae might be short-circuited, eliminating the algae while leaving other life in the same ecosystem intact.
The key to the discovery actually is a key of sorts, specifically the enzyme algae use to produce a protein called Lysine. An enzyme is a molecule produced by a living organism that facilitates and speeds up specific chemical reactions in the presence of another chemical, generically referred to as a “substrate.” Like a lock and key, the enzyme binds to the substrate and in this case, causes lysine to be produced.
The algae rely on lysine to continue to survive and reproduce. If a chemical were introduced into their habitat that bound to the enzyme as well or better than the algae’s normal substrate, but did not allow the same chemical reaction to occur, the algae’s ability to produce lysine would be severely inhibited. In short, no more algae.
But lysine is a basic building block of life everywhere on Earth: not just algae but *all* photosynthesizing organisms – plants, algae and some bacteria – produce it. Those of us not fortunate enough to be photoautotrophs rely on eating those primary producers to get it for ourselves. So, how do we not have a massive, pan-species death chemical on our hands, capable of destroying plant life directly and starving animals, casting the entire ecosystem into barren oblivion? That would suck.
The answer is, again, the enzyme: now that Dr. Hudson has identified the enzyme itself, other researchers can pick up the ball and analyze the enzyme as it appears in a variety of species. Enzymes being highly complex structures, chances are that two different species of algae – to say nothing of other plants – will have completely differently-organized enzymes that perform the same function. Every organism is likely to be highly-specialized.
So our anti-lysine chemical could be tailor-made to hit exactly the targets we wish to eliminate. No death for the innocent, in other words.
This specialized means of eliminating photosynthesizers means that the discovery that could end irritating beach closures could have far more widely-spread effects. Any kind of aquaria – from pools to aquariums to drinking water – could be purified in this fashion. Other non-algae plant life could also be targeted, even pathogens that might otherwise be treated by penicillin.
In fact, with the enzyme now identified, the future of anti-algae efforts may not even rely on a synthetic chemical at all: the only requirement is that the chemical be one which fits as well or better with the lysine enzyme, which we may find occurs in nature. It may be just these kinds of discoveries that enhance our ability to be the stewards of the Earth that our Earth requires.