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NOAA Grant Focuses on Battling Toxins in Great Lakes

ESF scientist a member of research team

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded a team of scientists, including Dr. Gregory Boyer of ESF, $182,982 for the first year of an anticipated four-year $703,777 project for research that could lead to an instrument called a biofilter that could break down harmful algal toxins in the Great Lakes into harmless byproducts.

This project will build on previous research that examined bacteria capable of degrading microcystin, a widespread toxin produced by some species of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae. Toxins produced by blue-green algae are a growing national threat and known to cause serious illnesses in humans, pets, and wildlife and pose a significant risk to some water supplies. The planned biofilter could be an effective way to prevent the passage of algal toxins into water distribution systems.

Boyer, who is chair of ESF's Department of Chemistry and executive director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium, is a collaborator on the team led by Dr. Steven Wilhelm of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Boyer said the NOAA grant is part of a larger effort to eliminate the dangers presented by blue-green algae. Earlier this year, ESF received a nearly $400,000 grant to test the use of hydrogen peroxide to control blooms that formed in Sodus Bay. The researchers are also seeking funding to develop water-flow models and long-term solutions that would prevent nutrients that feed the algae from entering the water in the first place.

"When the bloom occurred over Labor Day weekend in 2010, the economic loss was devastating," Boyer said. "The Sodus Bay region lost tens of millions of dollars in merchant and tourism dollars due to these blue-green algal blooms.

"This NOAA funding is really a piece of a bigger puzzle. First, we are working on controlling the bloom itself with hydrogen peroxide. With this NOAA-funded work, we're looking at whether a biofilter can be used to destroy the toxins," Boyer said. "The big picture goes beyond Sodus Bay. It's a water-quality question. There are simply too many nutrients available to support algae growth throughout the Great Lakes."

The research is funded through a national competition of the Prevention, Control, and Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms run by NOAA's National Ocean Service/National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. NOAA's harmful algal bloom and hypoxia programs are authorized by the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998.

"For many years researchers have focused on the ecology of toxic cyanobacterial blooms, and addressed the question of why these blooms occur," said Wilhelm. "While understanding the causes of bloom events remains an important and ongoing effort, we now have the opportunity to engineer a potential solution for persistent toxin concentrations we find in many freshwater environments."

"Health concerns caused by cyanobacteria blooms are a significant economic threat for us here, with a 20 to 25 percent decline in tourism related revenue in this area in 2010 alone due to this issue," said Ed Leroux, president of Save our Sodus, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting water quality in Sodus Bay, a part of Lake Ontario.