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NCCOS Research Project

Application of Quantitative Molecular Methods to Characterize Abundance and Distribution of Alexandrium Cysts for NOAA’s HAB Forecasting

Primary Contact(s): marc.suddleson@noaa.gov
This project began in September 2019 and is projected to be completed in August 2022

This project supports development for two lab-based quantitative molecular methods for more rapid, accurate detection of Alexandrium catenella resting cysts in sediment from the Gulf of Maine, Puget Sound, and the waters around Kodiak Island and Kachemak Bay. The molecular detection methods and training of researchers and stakeholders in impacted regions is needed to advance research and forecasting applications. The project will expand NOAA HAB Operational Forecasting to new regions.

Left – Light micrograph of an A. catenella cyst. Right – The same cyst stained with primulin. Credit S. Kibler,  NOAA.

Why We Care
Along our Northeast and Pacific Northwest coasts, annual Alexandrium catenella blooms can produce potent neurotoxins that accumulate in shellfish and cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), a potentially fatal illness affecting shellfish consumers. State and tribal agencies institute closures to prevent the harvest of toxic shellfish and safeguard our seafood supply. Building on demonstrated success in the Gulf of Maine, NOAA and partners are developing harmful algal bloom (HAB) forecasting products for Puget Sound and central Alaska to help mitigate PSP risks in these regions.

Forecasting hinges on the determination of wintertime abundance of A. catenella resting cysts in the sediment at bloom locations. The current protocol for cyst enumeration by fluorescent microscopy is laborious, requires highly specific training, and has some uncertainty about the identity of A. catenella resting cysts and their vitality. There is need to streamline cyst sampling and quantification to shorten the turnaround time in advance of the spring bloom season.

Elyse Bonner, left (Tuskegee University, NOAA EPP MSI USP Scholar), assisting crewmember from the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in deployment of the Craib sediment corer. Credit S. Kibler, NOAA.

What Are We Doing
This project advances two species-specific molecular techniques developed previously for vegetative cells using a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR)-based method and a fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH)-based method. The team will design qPCR and FISH assays using A. catenella resting cysts in sediment samples collected in 2018 from the three study locations. New samples collected after the 2019 and 2020 summer bloom seasons will allow for direct comparison of microscopy-based and molecular assay-based cyst abundance data.

Additional samples from collaborators on an ECOHAB project in Southeast Alaska will make the comparison more robust. After validation, the new methods will be shared with other HAB researchers, monitoring organizations and stakeholders in the Gulf of Maine, the State of Washington, Alaska and Canada though public presentations, publications, and a training workshop at the 2021 U.S. National HAB Meeting. The resulting new molecular tools will also be integrated into the NOAA HAB Operational Forecasting System to enable streamlined, less costly generation of critical cyst abundance data.

Dr. Cheryl Greengrove of University of Washington-Tacoma leads this project. Co-investigators are Julie Masura (University of Washington-Tacoma), Julie Matweyou (University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska Sea Grant), Steve Kibler (NOAA NCCOS) and will involve undergraduate and graduate students .

The project is funded through the NCCOS Monitoring and Event Response Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) Program.

Additional Resources

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Related Links

Project Partners:
Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network
Sound Toxins partnership
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
NCCOS Kibler Project Page

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