Testing the Waters
Houses dot a third of the shoreline around Willand Pond in Dover, the rest of which is forested by a thick wall of leafy trees. It is hard to believe that just beyond this flora sit big box stores, bustling strip malls, and gas stations.
With urbanization comes an increased discharge of nitrogen and phosphorous into our waterways during heavy rains. This imbalance of nutrients creates fertile ground – or liquid – for the blooming of bacterial microorganisms, called cyanobacteria, which can photosynthesize and are capable of producing toxins.
On the rise in recent years due to causative factors like eutrophication and climate change, cyanobacteria thrive under the right ecological conditions to produce these toxins, known as microcystins, which may be implicated in gastroenteritis, tumors and cancer of the liver, and the disruption of proteins by inhibiting normal activity. Another toxin produced by cyanobacteria, known as BMAA (beta methylamino-L-alanine), may have consequences such as neurological disease, seizures and other acute issues, or even death.
Using high tech probes, COLSA biologist Jim Haney and his team of researchers have collected samples of Willand Pond’s water, plankton, and sediment – nine meters down – to be further tested for cyanobacteria in the lab. Haney is interested in how these bacteria contribute to the ecosystem, and has been studying their affect on water and the food web for the past decade. “This is not strictly an academic problem. It has real-life applications,” says Haney. “We want to know if and how cyanobacteria toxins get outside of the water body and into people.”
One member of Haney’s team of researchers, Amanda Murby '06, '09G, '14G, is studying the ecology of cyanobacteria in lakes, with a special emphasis on microcystins. “There are the net bacteria you might see blooming up at the surface, which gives you that blue green scum that can be pretty harmful to the public, because in high concentrations you have a higher chance of toxicity. There are a multitude of different toxins and we’re only looking at one – microcystin – because it is common to lakes in New England and, globally, is the most well studied,” says Murby. “There are sensitive techniques available that allow us to measure small quantities of the toxin, which is good for monitoring progress.”
Only time will tell what consequences cyanobacteria may have on human health through water and the food web. Meanwhile, Haney and his team conduct the long-term research that has more immediate outcomes as well, like the Department of Environmental Services’ restriction on swimming in a lake with high levels of cyanobacteria.