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Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms in the Lower Great Lakes

Project Status: This project began in January 2002 and was completed in December 2008

Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms in the Lower Great Lakes (MERHAB-LGL) was the first regional, multi-institution project to examine toxic cyanobacteria in the lower Great Lakes and their watersheds. MERHAB-LGL developed cost effective monitoring strategies to protect drinking and recreational waters. New York and Vermont now use these strategies, and a cyanobacterial toxin analysis laboratory was established that continues to assist environmental and health agencies.

Why We Care
Since 2005, large toxic cyanobacteria blooms (also known as blue-green algae blooms) have increasingly become a serious threat to human health in many freshwater ecosystems, including the Great Lakes. These toxic blooms also threaten the natural resources and local economies dependent on the Great Lakes. The development of effective harmful algal bloom (HAB) detection techniques and effective monitoring and response strategies for the Great Lakes is a priority for NOAA.

What We Are Doing
The MERHAB-LGL project focused on Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Champlain, bringing together for the first time experts in cyanotoxins, molecular biology, remote sensing, hydrodynamic modeling, and public outreach. Several coordinated working groups focused on each lake and also on cross-cutting topics such as toxin analysis methods, remote sensing, hydrodynamic modeling, and outreach. Specific workgroup objectives are summarized here.

Over the course of the project, MERHAB investigators participated in over 65 research cruises, including the first-ever whole lake synoptic and temporal surveys describing distribution and community composition of cyanobacteria and toxins in each lake. The project team developed new methods for monitoring and detecting cyanobacteria toxins, including the expansion of molecular techniques with application of metagenomics, proteomics, and metabolomic techniques1 to both field and laboratory cultures. The team developed a now routine use of quantitative PCR2 to identify toxic cyanobacteria species and estimate their abundance from field samples. The team also examined the application of ferrybox systems3 for detecting blooms, and the deployment of new buoy-based monitoring systems for cyanobacteria. Finally, the team developed methods for measuring cyanobacteria toxins in fish, which facilitates examination of the potential for cyanotoxin movement through the food web. 

Benefits of Our Work
Through MERHAB-LGL, NCCOS-funded partners evaluated the efficacy of integrating cyanoHAB detection and response protocols to provide maximum protection to the public at a minimum cost. Recommendations on cost effective “alert” protocols to monitor for toxic cyanobacterial blooms were adopted by state agencies and citizen groups and continue to benefit New York and Vermont harmful algal bloom monitoring programs. MERHAB-LGL established many techniques now in standard use for analysis of freshwater cyanobacterial toxins.

The MERHAB-LGL toxin response lab continues to routinely service the needs of health and environmental agencies responding to cyanobacterial blooms and the threats associated with their toxins. Agencies and investigators submit samples for toxicity analysis at reasonable cost and with quick turnaround times to minimize impacts from toxic HAB outbreaks. New York Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health, Environment Canada, and other agencies routinely contract with the lab for cyanotoxin analysis.

The project was led by the State University of New York’s (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Partners included the University of Vermont, the Lake Champlain Research Institute (SUNY Plattsburgh), SUNY Brockport, the University of Tennessee, the University at Buffalo, Western Michigan University, and the New York Sea Grant Program (Cornell University).

1. Metagenomics is the study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples. Proteomics is the study of proteins, particularly their structures and functions. Metabolomics is the study of chemical processes involving end products of cellular processes (metabolites).
2. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is a molecular biology technology used to duplicate a single copy or a few copies of DNA to generate thousands to millions of copies.
3. Ferrybox systems are instrument packages placed on board commercial ships, such as ferries, to monitor water properties.

Region of Study: Great Lakes

Primary Contact: Marc Suddleson

Research Theme: Harmful Algal Blooms 

Related NCCOS Center: CSCOR


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