The Center's Research Projects

Researchers at the Center will conduct three projects on how environmental factors promote or constrain cHAB species; what factors influence toxin production; and how other microbes influence cHAB growth and toxicity. With these three projects, the Center will be able to influence policy and shape strategies to respond to algal blooms in the future.

The collaborative projects will bring together some of the most prominent researchers in biology and environmental sciences. Senior personnel include nationally recognized scientists such as George Bullerjahn, Timothy Davis, R. Michael McKay, (BGSU); Thomas Bridgeman (University of Toledo); Steven Wilhelm (University of Tennessee)Greg Dick (University of Michigan); David Sherman (University of Michigan); Gregory Boyer (SUNY-ESF); Heather Triezenberg (Michigan State University); Hans Paerl (University of North Carolina) and BGSU alumni Gregory Doucette (NOAA) and Justin Chaffin (The Ohio State University).

The Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health will have the staff, facilities and funding necessary to gather vital new data and develop important new research tools to better predict, detect and mitigate cHABs in Lake Erie and beyond.

What drives toxic algal blooms?

The first project will be led by Bowling Green State University, University of Tennessee and University of North Carolina and will examine how environmental cues promote or constrain the proliferation of cHAB species in mixed populations.

Blooms in Lake Erie have been occurring sporadically for decades, and have now become a regular occurrence and climate change increases the likelihood for more expansive blooms, exposing larger populations to water-borne toxins. While the growth and toxicity of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie has been studied for years, it is only recently that the tools of systems biology (combining ecology, molecular biology and environmental chemistry with limnetic techniques) have been brought to bear on this issue. The objective of this project is to determine the factors that contribute to biomass and toxin production by the cyanobacteria-dominated microbial communities of the eutrophic lower Great Lakes. The physiology and success of the cyanotoxin producers Microcystis and Planktothrix will be tested to ascertain the contributions of climate and anthropogenic drivers to their success. The goals of this study are to develop the information necessary to determine the environmental cues promote or constrain the proliferation (i.e., growth and biomass accumulation) of cHAB species in mixed populations. Our overarching aim in this project is to address the extent to which N availability and temperature  play in the development, toxigenicity and persistence of cHAB taxa in Lake Erie and other bloom-affected freshwaters.

We hypothesize that temperature and N bioavailability are important drivers in yielding the specific composition of cHABs, and thus the effects of variations in N loadings and cycling rates can be differentiated from the effects of climate change.

How are toxins emerging from algal blooms?

The second project will be led by the University of Michigan and will investigate how environmental cues influence toxin production by cHAB species.

Microcystis and other cyanobacteria commonly found in cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms (cHABs) harbor numerous gene clusters that encode the biosynthesis of diverse and unknown natural products. This project will test the hypothesis that these gene clusters are responsible for production of variety of unknown toxins and bioactive compounds that threaten human and environmental health and/or could serve as sources of new medicines, yet they remain invisible to current methods commonly used to assess water quality or develop new drugs. The goal is to identify novel toxins and their specific genetic pathways for biosynthesis and regulation through the study of both pure cultures and consortia of uncultured microorganisms. Genomes will be assembled from metagenomes and from representative cultures of dominant bloom-forming cyanobacterial species. High-throughput bioinformatic mining of genomes and metagenomes will identify and prioritize targets for manual curation and structure prediction. In parallel to these gene-based studies, analysis of cultures and field samples will be analyzed to characterize their metabolites, bioactivity, and potential biological targets relating to human disease. Taken together, results on the genetic/biochemical novelty and abundance and expression of genes in Lake Erie blooms will be used to identify high-priority gene clusters for further biochemical characterization of their natural products.  This project will be tightly integrated into the broader activities of the center in that it will utilize DNA sequencing and environmental data and provide information on the structure and bioactivity of toxins.

How to detect blooms and inform the public?

The third project will study how other member of the microbial assemblage influence cHAB growth and toxicity and will be led by The Ohio State University, University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University and the NOA Lab in Charleston.

This project directly addresses four research priorities of the Oceans and Human Health program: (1) compare and correlate current observing systems for monitoring ocean and Great Lakes properties including Harmful Algal Blooms, (2) evaluate long-term field application potential of newly developing in situ sensors for monitoring ocean and Great Lakes properties, (3) evaluate real-time, in-water observations of physicochemical properties, as well as the detection of HAB species and toxins, to provide data streams for assimilation by predictive models, (4) develop appropriate and efficient monitoring strategies for algal toxins (particularly in drinking water) that are protective of public health. The specific aims of the  proposed  project  are  to integrate in situ sensing and sampling technologies with data assimilation strategies to improve forecast accuracy, provide regional stakeholders with advanced warning of cHAB development and toxic events, and evaluate the impacts of climate change on cHABs and internal phosphorus loading in Lake Erie.  We will accomplish these aims by integrating an autonomous, in situ Environmental Sample Processor with Solid Phase Adsorption sampling devices, water quality probes, and field-portable sampling methods to develop a more timely and complete spatio-temporal picture of developing cHAB toxicity and biomass as well as internal phosphorus loading in Lake Erie.


Citizen Engagement and Citizen Science

The community can play a vital role in the success of the Center’s research. By promoting citizen science, the Center engages with local stakeholders to collect data and slow the spread of algal blooms.

One of the major challenges of the Center will be to collect accurate data. With the help of charter boat captains on Lake Erie, charter boats will collect water samples on the lake to provide real-time data to researchers.

The Center will also partner with the U.S. Coast Guard and its Icebreaker crews. Members of the Coast Guard will receive education and tuition support with a “biology 101” course on algal blooms and data collection.

Below are other ways citizen science plays a role in the success of the Center:

Study abroad opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students
OSU Stone lab will coordinate the charter boat sampling efforts.
Michigan State will train scientists on how to effectively communicate their research to the general public.

Facilities Core to Supporting All Activities

Central to the research activities described above is the need to analyze changes in the chemistry and HAB toxin concentration of our samples.  Having dedicated facilities employing the best analytical methods allows direct comparison of samples from location to location, from year to year and from experiment to experiment.  All nutrient analyses will be performed by highly skilled staff at OSU Stone Lab following strict QA/QC protocols as required by Ohio EPA.  Toxins will be assess at SUNY-ESF by LC-MS and LC-MS/MS to identify both the contribution on individual toxin congeners on the total concentration of cyanotoxins present.