Algal bloom in Iowa lake Credit: Elizabeth Swanner
Algae blooms, like the one on this Iowa lake, discolor surface water and pose health risk to humans and animals who are exposed to resulting toxins.

Iowa State to explore harmful algal blooms

EPA funds study to predict and combat harmful algal blooms in Iowa lakes.

Iowa State University researchers received a $760,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the overgrowth of harmful algae that increasingly threatens public health in the state.

The three-year grant will allow Iowa State scientists to look into the genetic and environmental factors that give rise to the overgrowth of algae, known as harmful algal blooms, in Iowa lakes and to develop new methods to predict and combat their occurrence.

“We are trying to identify and understand the bacteria that produce the harmful toxins,” said Adina Howe, assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and principal investigator on the project. “Doing so will provide insights into the dynamics of these harmful algal blooms, helping us to understand how and why they form.”

Harmful algal blooms in water produce dangerous toxins that can cause serious health concerns for people as well as pets, livestock and wildlife. Blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, are microscopic organisms that live in lakes and streams, usually in low numbers. However, cyanobacteria — which have the ability to produce toxic byproducts — can grow quickly and form blooms that discolor the water. Blooms usually occur in warm, shallow surface water during the summer months in Iowa.

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 people, 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 overgrowth. 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.

EPA awarded the grant in response to recent large-scale algal blooms in lakes and reservoirs across the country as well as in large river systems such as the Ohio River. In addition to the Iowa State project, The Ohio State University received a similar grant of about $680,000 to develop a watershed classification system to manage harmful algal blooms in the Upper Ohio River Basin.

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