The Falcon   |   Volume 83, Issue 53

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Killer algae on the rise in Northwest

Professor of Biology Tim Nelson has been studying the effect of algae overpopulation for 11 years.

Professor of Biology Tim Nelson has been studying the effect of algae overpopulation for 11 years.
Photo credit: CURTIS SIMPSON IV/The Falcon.

Professor's studies show human role


Published: October 14 2009

One peaceful August day in France, a rider brought his horse down to the beach for a stroll through the shallow surf. Hours later he was found unconscious, his horse dead.

A month later, a truck driver who assisted in a massive clean-up operation on another French beach suffered from sudden cardiac arrest and died behind the wheel.

These mysteries are not stories of sabotage or conventional killers. They are from a 2009 BBC article that places potential blame on toxic gas emitted by mass amounts of decomposing algae, Professor of Biology Tim Nelson said.

Though the effects of algae overpopulation have only recently captured worldwide interest, they have been the center of Nelson's attention for 11 years.

The two primary suspects in these cases are heterosigma akashiwo and sea lettuce. Nelson began researching them in 1998 with a $70,000 grant from the Murdock Charitable Trust and a mild interest from state and national parties.

Large amounts of decomposing sea lettuce can release a potentially lethal toxic gas, Nelson said. In addition, too much algae can wipe out entire populations of underwater eelgrass, Nelson said. Eelgrass provides food for animals such as salmon, Dungeness crab and oysters, he said.

However, too much algae is causing the death of these marine animals, Nelson said. This also cuts into profits that could be made by selling them, he said.

The study has grown into a massive operation involving professors and students from SPU and Western Washington University, with a related project being done by the University of Rhode Island. It has collected almost $1.3 million from national grants and organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

The main focus of the study is to predict how much the algae will grow and its potential effects, Nelson said.

Nelson and his collaborators have noted sharp increases in the worldwide populations of heterosigma akashiwo and sea lettuce, raising national and international concerns about the cause of such growths and how disastrous the potential effects could be.

Study participants are attempting to map out the largest concentrations of harmful algae. The team primarily relies on Washington state video surveys to measure the population of eelgrass in the Puget Sound.

Student interns have been reviewing these tapes. After watching hours of the ocean floor on video, Myles Melton recorded the presence or absence of ulvoids, another term for the harmful algae. Melton said he enjoyed every aspect of the research.

"The work was interesting, and it allowed me to seriously contribute to an important study," he said.

Senior Matthew Nguyen worked in the labs, creating samples and testing antibodies on the plant tissue among other tasks. Nguyen said the opportunity was an application of everything he had learned in his past three years of college.

"There was bits of general bio, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, cell biology, and immunology all mixed into one project," Nguyen said.

Nelson has seen greater concentrations of algae in areas with larger human populations, he said. This implies that the dumping of fertilizer and other nutrients by humans most likely plays a large role in algae overgrowth, he said.

"Lots of light and lots of nutrients combine to create strong blooms," Nelson said.

Combined with these extra nutrients in the water, a few more weeks of sunshine is all it takes to set off a bad year. A particularly bad year for the Northwest was 2006, though Europe has been hit hard this year, he said.

Nelson said the algae toxins in natural amounts cannot penetrate human skin, so there is no need to fear the ocean. However, he also stressed the importance of the study as a means to preserve our underwater ecosystem.

"In most of the classes that we take in college, we are always learning things that have been known for years," Nguyen said. "In research, it feels pretty humbling to be at the edge of the scientific frontier. All in all, I love algae."

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