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2019 | Harmful Algal Blooms

Ariel View of Streams

FACULTY SEED GRANT | Global Change Center

Toxic cyanobacteria and other bacteria in air above freshwater harmful algal blooms

  • Dr. Linsey Marr Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Dr. Brian Badgley, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
  • Dr. David Schmale, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences

The economic impact of harmful algal blooms (HABs) exceeds hundreds of millions of dollars per year due to contaminated seafood, healthcare costs, lost tourism revenue, and increased costs for drinking water treatment. Both the frequency and intensity of HABs appear to be increasing, probably due to global changes such as warmer water, higher levels of carbon dioxide, and changes in rainfall patterns. The most severe exposures to HABs occur via ingestion of contaminated water or seafood, but algae and their toxins can become aerosolized, potentially leading to inhalation exposure, allergic reactions, and respiratory irritation. While concentrations of toxic cyanobacteria (commonly referred to as blue-green algae) and their associated cyanotoxins in freshwater have been reported, much less is known about their presence in air. Information is needed to predict how far the cyanobacteria can be transported in the atmosphere and to estimate the risk posed to those nearby and downwind communities.

Research questions:

  • Do toxic bacteria themselves become aerosolized? If so, what is the size of the aerosols, and how far can they be transported downwind?
  • Does aerosolization select for certain microbial groups, and are harmful cyanobacteria preferentially aerosolized from water?

The goals of this project are to determine the concentrations and size distributions of toxic cyanobacteria and to characterize the structures of total microbial communities in air above freshwater HABs. The findings will then be related to what is found in the associated surface water and to the results of chemical analyses for toxins.