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2,000 Water Samples = One Busy Chemistry Lab

ESF lead fight against effects of harmful algal blooms
1/12/2016

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ESF chemists have taken a leading role in protecting New York's lakes and the millions of people who use them from the toxic effects of harmful algal blooms.

During the past year, a team that includes faculty members, support staff and students analyzed some 2,000 water samples from more than 130 lakes in New York- part of a citizen-based effort to monitor water quality.

The research team headed by Dr. Gregory Boyer, a biochemist who is the director of the ESF-based Great Lakes Research Consortium, collected and/or analyzed samples from across the state, including 750 that were reported to be toxic. Over the last three years, the team has collected and/or analyzed more than 5,000 samples for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the state Department of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada.

"This partnership is considered by far the nation's premier volunteer-based program that monitors harmful algal blooms," Boyer said. "We are one of the few labs in the country that has the capability of testing for the entire family of toxins."

The work is done in conjunction with the Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program, a volunteer-based monitoring and education program managed by the DEC and the New York State Federation of Lake Associations (NYSFOLA).

Blue-green algae blooms are often associated with the presence of a cyanobacterium called Microcystis aeruginosa that can cause severe health problems for humans and other mammals, affecting the liver, intestines and nervous system.

The algal toxins laboratory at ESF serves as one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's rapid-response laboratories and is often one of the first called upon when officials suspect the presence of cyanobacteria toxins. This could occur in drinking water, as happened in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014, or this past fall when several dogs died after eating contaminated mussels along the Maryland coast.

Samples from citizen scientists come into Jahn Laboratory via trained volunteers who collect the water and submit filters - or jars or even a 20-liter carboy - that tell the story of what's in the lake. In the lab, they run at least two liquid chromatography mass spectrometry instruments around the clock from June though November. The technology is designed to separate and identify the chemicals present.

"We're also very interested in automated techniques that can detect these algae out in the water without us being there," Boyer said. "One of the problems with sampling is it assumes you're there at the time the bloom is there and that doesn't always happen."

If toxins are found, the pace picks up. In many cases, positive results are immediately transferred to the DEC or the state Department of Health so "do not drink" or "do not contact" water advisories can be issued. Sometimes, a major public event makes the testing a major focus of attention. Such was the case last summer, when Boyer, along with scientists from Finger Lakes Community College and the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Council, were out at 6 a.m., testing the water in the swim course for the Finger Lakes Triathlon literally minutes before the first wave of swimmers hit the water.

"Canceling the swim event for a triathlon totally changes the triathlon. I am certain I would have been the most unpopular person on the beach that day," Boyer said. "But protecting the health of the swimmers has to be our top priority."

Boyer was honored for his efforts in 2015 when he received the Lake Tear of the Clouds Award from New York State Federation of Lake Associations. The award, the highest bestowed by the federation, recognizes a person who demonstrates "the highest dedication to lakes and watersheds," assists NYSFOLA in its mission and shows "exceptional performance" in the field.

His work has also taken Boyer to the other side of the world as he works with colleagues in China to study a highly polluted lake near Shanghai, hoping to learn lessons that can be used to protect Lake Erie. The focus is Lake Tai, which covers nearly 900 square miles and contains about 90 islands. It has been plagued by pollution for decades. In November, the partnership led to a visit to ESF from three scientists from the Chinese National Academy of Sciences. Their goal was to learn the techniques that Boyer's team uses so they can apply the methods to studying Lake Tai.

"We use it for a model system for Lake Erie because it has many of the problems that Lake Erie has except that it's 20 years worse," Boyer said. "Our hope is that by looking at what happened at Lake Tai, and how you would fix it, we can prevent similar blooms from happening in Lake Erie."

Many students have assisted with the project. They include current undergraduates Matt Hartzheim, Chris Japinga and Elisabeth Semler. Jeff Russell '14, Dan Benza '13, and Binyamin Lightfoot '12, also worked in the lab as undergrads. Current graduate students who have assisted include Katherine Perri, Bofan Wei, Samantha Weber, Dominique Derminio and Zach Smith. Former graduates students, and the years they participated, are Justine Schmidt (2008-2014), Marci Savage (2012-2015), Rachael Radicello (2013-2015), Jeremy Sullivan (2007-2014) and Alexandra Souverneva (2015). Research Support Specialist Mike Satchwell has also been involved in various aspects of the project since its inception in 2000.


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