Rochester Science

Blue-green algae on Sodus Bay: how an RIT discovery may prevent future blooms

Algae is back in Sodus Bay. Blue-green algae, to be exact. Only, to be exact, blue-green algae isn’t algae at all…

Confused, yet? Blue-green algae is actually an organism known as cyanobacteria. Being bacteria, it is technically an animal rather than a plant. However, cyanobacteria are capable of photosynthesis, much like algae are. Cyanobacteria populates just about every ecosystem on Earth, from deep seas to freshwater to land.

In freshwater bodies, cyanobacteria blooms will cause waters to turn pea green, and in still areas, will rise to the surface as the trademark blue-green scum that gives them their name. The above-linked article includes someone quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody wanted to go in the water anyway because it was like pea soup.” This would be another symptom, rather than a secondary consideration, of blue-green algae blooms. “Blooms,” by the way, are large infestations of cyanobacteria which are typically caused by the introduction of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water. Officials in Sodus will probably be looking into fertilizer run-off as a culprit, but changes in currents and seasonal variations are probably also a factor.

Research conducted at RIT in partnership with the University of Alberta, Canada, may yield a low-impact solution for such infestations in the future. Professor Andre Hudson and his team has identified a critical juncture in the photosynthesis process in algae, cyanobacteria and other autotrophs that, if properly exploited, could neutralize such infestations without harming other species within the ecosystem. DFE covered this discovery a while back. But new developments have emerged in the discovery of a specific practical solution.

The key to this new solution is lysine, a common protein that is critical to the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of converting sunlight to digestible energy, as all plants do. Dr. Hudson discovered a means of blocking the production of lysine, which would disrupt the whole process of photosynthesis and effectively starve the targeted organism.

Dr. Hudson says that the team has discovered and begun to test a couple of different chemicals to see if they will effectively short-circuit the photosynthetic process in this way. Once one working chemical is found – and found to not interfere with other organisms in the same ecosystem – the next step would be to find a business that wants to buy into the new technology. However, testing chemicals for their interaction with other organisms is a long-term process and even if the chemicals they’ve discovered yield a successful solution, that solution may be four to five years in coming.

In the meanwhile, its worth noting that while swimming through cyanobacteria would be an indubitably icky process, the toxicity of cyanobacteria is actually quite rare. Science is still not entirely certain why one bloom is toxic and the majority aren’t, but one theory suggests that different species of cyanobacteria produce different chemicals. Some blooms have been reported to have killed cows, most are completely harmless. Regardless, there is currently no study of the Sodus Bay blue-green algae bloom that says its at all toxic.