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A Study in Blue-Green Algae

Posted by Sarah Dreher, on Thu, May 22, 2014 @ 10:00 AM

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) may be a bit of a mystery to you, so first off the basic definition: a rapid growth of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in a water system which may lead to production of algal toxins, ranging from mild skin irritants to dangerous neurotoxins.  HABs have started cropping up more frequently than ever, usually in the later and hotter part of summer.  If you suspect that a pond or lake you frequent might have a HAB this summer, it’s time to don your detective hat (which you can totally pull off despite what your friends may say) and search for evidence.  For this adventure 2 major clues will need to be sought:   blue-green algae and if those are present, toxins made by blue-green algae. So Mr. Holmes, “the game is afoot” (The Adventure of the Abbey Grange).

In freshwater systems in the Midwest, it can be hard to distinguish between blue-green algae (possibly toxic) and the more common and non-toxic green algae. One easy way to determine what you have growing is to use a handheld fluorometer that can detect pigments made by both types.  Presuming your keen detective skills have allowed you to discern that there actually is a large population of blue-green algae, it may be prudent to determine if the bloom is toxic,  an “elementary” task (The Complete Sherlock Holmes).

Just like how not all algae are blue-green algae, not all blue-green algae are toxic.  Commercial kits are available to test for a wide range of toxins that are made by blue-green algae.  Microcystin is currently the only blue-green algal toxin for which there is a kit that does not require much in the way of specialized lab equipment or personnel.  For other toxins and to get quantitative results you will need some lab equipment, and even though you are a legendary British detective you might not want to buy yourself a set of pipettes and a plate reader. That is why companies like Beagle Bioproducts are happy to perform toxin testing  for you.

What is toxin testing, you might inquire?  It’s a service we provide to test various water samples for a toxin of interest, such as microcystin, cylindrospermopsin, anatoxin, saxitoxin and nodularin.  We can let you know if the toxin is present and give you details on the approximate concentration of the toxin in your water. Then when the inspector (or your neighbor) cries, “By George! How did you ever see that?” you can respond “Because I looked for it” (The Adventures of the Dancing Men).

After all this mystery solving you and Dr. Watson might be ready to just throw in the towel (or pipe). “There is nothing more to be said or to be done tonight, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather” (The Five Orange Pips).  But you don’t have to give up yet- knowing if HABs are or aren’t present will prepare you to safely enjoy whichever water body you decide to frequent, and remember “it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all” (The Man with the Twisted Lip).

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