Adina Howe researches harmful algal blooms

January 20, 2018

The EPA recently awarded $760,000 to Iowa State Researchers to study blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, a microscopic organism that lives in lakes and streams, usually in low numbers.  Cyanobacteria has the ability to produce toxic byproducts, and can grow quickly and form blooms that discolor the water.  Recent large scale blooms in lakes and reservoirs across the country have focused attention on the problem.

Adina Howe, a BCB faculty in the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, and PI on the grant, will be focusing on understanding the bacteria that produce the harmful toxins. Doing so will provide insights into the dynamics of these harmful algal blooms, helping us to understand how and why they form, she said.

Howe and the research team intend to develop new methods that make surveillance of harmful algal blooms more efficient and less costly. Much of their research will focus on microcystin, the toxin produced by cyanobacteria. Exposure to high levels of microcystin can cause gastrointestinal problems, asthma-like symptoms and skin irritation in humans, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. Severe cases can lead to liver failure.

The researchers also will formulate predictive models to help state officials anticipate possible overgrowths. Such predictive models will account for weather patterns, nutrient runoff from surrounding farmland, the presence of specific bacteria and other factors, Howe said.

The researchers also hope to identify potential approaches to degrade the toxin produced by the harmful algae, which could lead to a new method of combating algae blooms.

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