We have a number of projects currently underway on developing new detection techniques for cyanobacterial toxins in freshwater ecosystems. These include using molecular techniques (PCR), HPLC and MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry. Cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae) produce a number of different toxins, including the hepatotoxic toxins microcystins and cylindrospermopsin, and the neurotoxins anatoxin-a and the PSP toxin, saxitoxin. In most cases, we do not know the biological function of these toxins. They may serve as antifeedants, metal-binding compounds, growth regulators, or store essential nutrients such as nitrogen. Understanding the biological function of these toxins is a key goal of my laboratory.
Quite distinct from our work with toxic algae, we are interested in how plants, bacteria and other microorganisms obtain essential trace metals. In recent years, this has focused on strong iron chelators or siderophores produced under iron-limiting conditions. These compounds, along with their specific uptake receptors, serve to solubilize needed iron and promote its uptake. Mycorrhizal fungi form beneficial associations with important forest tree species. Two strains in particular, Wilcoxina mikolae and W. rehmii produce the siderophore ferricrocin under iron-limiting conditions in culture. Siderophores such as ferricrocin may also form stable complexes with metals other than iron. These siderophore-metal complexes may be taken up into the cell, introducing potentially toxic metals into the plant. Siderophores may also bind heavy metals and protect the mycorrhizal tree species. Understanding these complex interactions is essential if we are to going to use constitutive siderophore-producing fungi in the reforestation of metal-contaminated sites. This project is part of ESF's larger goal to biotechnology to improve forest productivity on marginal sites and to bioremediate human impacts on our environment.
In recent years, the US has put increasing focus on the use of biofuels as a replacement for petroleum-based hydrocarbons. North America is a cold-weather climate and I strongly feel that if this approach is to have success, we will need to develop tools and techniques that allow us to co-produce both lipids that can be used for biofuels production as well as other bioactive materials in closed loop photobioreactors that can be insulated from the environment and optimized for growth and product production. My interests range from strain development and selection, to the optimization of growth in mass culture facilities, and the development of new screening technologies such as MALDI-TOF/TOF that could increase the practicality of using algal biomass for biofuels, animal feed supplements and as CO2 sequestering agents. Much of this work is done in collaboration with ESF's program in renewable resources, sustainable energy and development.
MERHAB-Lower Great Lakes (www.merhab-LGL.org)
The project is part of NOAA's Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms program (MERHAB). It is unique in that it is one of a few MERHAB project that specifically deals with freshwater systems. The goals of this project are to develop an integrated alert system to monitor and detect toxic cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae) blooms in the lower Great Lakes. This includes Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain along with their associated watersheds. The MERHAB-LGL project is a multi-institutional proposal and is organized around six different working groups, each with their own tasks: The Lake Erie working group will investigate the spatial distribution of toxic Microcystis in Lake Erie, evaluate the chemical diversity of microcystins) produced in the lake, evaluate the use of molecular markers for the microcystin biosynthesis genes mcyB and mcyD as monitoring tools for toxigenic species, and examine nutritional probes for iron, nitrogen and phosphorus as predictors for toxic cyanobacterial blooms. The Champlain working group will investigate the occurrence of anatoxin-a and microcystins in Lake Champlain, including the identification of the phytoplankton species responsible for toxin formation in this system, examine the correlation between blue-green algal density and toxin production, validate a newly developed dipstick assay for anatoxin-a, evaluate cyanotoxin screening protocols for potential use by water treatment operators, and develop training programs for those water quality managers. The Lake Ontario group will examine the occurrence of toxic cyanobacteria in the Lake Ontario's southern shore embayments and determine if these embayments are a source of cyanobacteria and toxins to the open lake water and to the St. Lawrence River. It will also examine the potential of using zebra mussels as surrogate monitoring system (mussel watch). We are actively involved in all three lakes. In addition, we provide a centralized toxin support group will analyze for the cyanobacteria toxins including microcystins, anatoxin-a, anatoxin-a(s), PSP toxins and cylindrospermopsin. MERHAB-LGL also includes a remote sensing and modeling working group will provide information on the occurrence or movement of phytoplankton blooms in the region and apply new remote sensing platforms to the occurrence of toxic cyanobacteria blooms. This information will be disseminated to concern parties by developing a public awareness program for cyanobacteria toxins, informing and educate local environmental, health, and monitoring agencies integrating the groups field studies into information on management strategies, detection techniques, health risks, and what is likely to be an appropriate public response. More information on MERHAB and its affiliated projects can be obtained from NOAA's MERHAB website. You may also be interested in the the GLRC Research Review vol 7 describing this project.
As part of Oceans and Human Health Initiative (OHHI), we are to establish facilities and materials to support harmful algal bloom research at NOAA's Oceans and Human Health Center. Freshwater biotoxins are understudied relative to marine biotoxins: only microcystins produced by Microcystis spp. are currently addressed in any federally funded program on the Laurentian Great Lakes. Recently, biotoxins both new to science (BMAAs) as well as new to the Great Lakes (cylindrospermopsin, anatoxin-a) have been found in this system. Moreover, strains of freshwater plankton (e.g., Planktothrix spp., Anabaena spp.) which were previously thought to be atoxigenic in the Great Lakes have been shown to produce these potent toxins. We collect and characterize (using biochemical and genetic tools) novel toxigenic cyanobacteria from the Laurentian Great Lakes and other freshwater systems. Toxin and cell standards (which are currently unavailable) are generated to be used by GLERL and other researchers. Specific objectives include: (1) To determine the distribution and occurrence of anatoxin-a and cylindrospermopsin-producing organisms, (2) To develop an analytical method for the neurotoxin β-N-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) in natural samples (3) To identify organisms responsible for microcystin production in Sandusky Bay. (4) To evaluate the use of rapid high-throughput assays for the detection of cyanobacterial toxins (5) To isolate and genetically characterize toxin-producing strains of Lake Erie cyanobacteria, and (6) To provide both training and reference materials to GLERL and other researchers. Through the established outreach system at the NOAA GLERL laboratory we will inform the public of these emerging health risks. Working jointly between my lab at SUNY-ESF and Steven Wilhelm's laboratory at the University of Tennessee, this project will support the education and training of postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate personnel whom will be given the unique opportunity to interact with a top government research facility as well as to develop new approaches to understanding the linkages between human health and activities and our indispensable freshwater resources.
Toxic cyanobacteria have real world effects on both human health and the quality of life. Toxic blooms have been associated with the death of waterfowl, cattle and domestic pets such as dogs. The OHHI project with use modern molecular and chemical techniques to better understand the health risks of the cyanobacterial blooms. Here we are working on EPA's research vessel Lake Guardian to collect sediment cores from Lake Erie as part of their International Field Year on Lake Erie (IFYLE). This core will later be examined for changes in the presence of cyanobacterial toxins and toxigenic DNA. Information such as this is important if we are to understand the role human impacts play on the initiation of these toxic blooms.
ESF and the Great Lakes Reserach Consortium are one of the early members of the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) regional association. GLOS's goal is to deploy a series of buoy, shore and ship-based plateforms accross all five great lakes that can provide real time information to be used for education, teaching, and to drive coupled hydrodynamic and biological growth models for harmful algal blooms in this region. Our specific part of this project is to develop and standardize novel sensors that can be used to detect cyanobacteria, and individual genera of cyanobacteria such as Microcystis in the water column. These are often tested in the laboratory using our "tank' developed for biofuel production. In collaboration with Environment Canada, we also spend each summer on board the research vessel CCGS Limnos field-ttesting these new sensors on the Great Lakes. These projects provide ample opportunity for field work and taking chemistry to the real environment - always an interesting change for those scientist who think that chemistry can only be done inside the confines of a standard laboratory.
SUNY-ESF is very much a research institution with excellent facilities for graduate student in a number of different disciplines. While my training is in biochemistry, my research laboratory is much more multidisciplinary and always interested in high quality graduate students in biochemistry, natural products chemistry, chemical ecology, environmental chemistry, biotechnology and related areas. The common denominator is our shared interest in the ecological importance of small bioactive molecules and their importance in chemical interactions between species. Which program you actually enter to pursue your degree is dependent upon your research interests, background training and future goals.
If you are interested in working with me, I would suggest first sending an email with your resume, a brief description of your research interests and coursework. Unofficial transcripts will be fine. That will allow me to review your background and provide suggestions as to the appropriate graduate program at SUNY-ESF.
Information about admission requirements and an application for graduate study is available online at www.esf.edu/admissions. For more information on the specific requirements for a advanced degree through the chemistry department, you may want to look at the Chemistry Department, Environmental Chemistry or Biochemistry web sites.
Recent graduates from my lab include:
Teaching is the task that recharges our batteries and keeps us in tune with the new developments in our field. My teaching duties usually include one or more of the following courses:
Additional course information and descriptions are available at the ESF chemistry department website.
Selected publications from the last few years are included below. Click here for a full list and earlier publications.
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Last updated: June 2011