U-M lands $6.5M center to study Great Lakes algal blooms

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Great Lakes researchers at the University of Michigan have been awarded a $6.5 million, five-year federal grant to host a center for the study of links between climate change, harmful algal blooms and human health.

Increased precipitation, more powerful storms and warming Great Lakes waters all encourage the proliferation of harmful algal blooms composed of cyanobacteria.

Also known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria can produce toxins harmful to humans, pets and wildlife. Though the pea-green summer blooms in western Lake Erie are the best-known in the region, cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms, or cHABs, now occur in all five Great Lakes.

“Toxic cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms are a growing threat to freshwater ecosystems, drinking water supplies and coastal communities worldwide, and the Great Lakes are ground zero for the climate-induced intensification of these blooms,” said U-M environmental microbiologist Gregory Dick, who will serve as director of the Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health.

Dick is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, director of the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, professor of earth and environmental sciences and of ecology and evolutionary biology in LSA, and professor of environment and sustainability in the School for Environment and Sustainability.

The center was founded at Bowling Green State University in 2018 with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Due to the retirement of founding director George Bullerjahn at BGSU, the center’s administrative home has moved to Ann Arbor with renewed funding from the two federal agencies.

A photo of two students collecting water from Lake Erie
Former U-M students Claire Zwiers and Derek Smith collect water samples from a cyanobacterial harmful algal bloom in western Lake Erie in September 2019. The fieldwork was part of a project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health, to study the effect of environmental conditions on toxin production by cyanobacteria. (Photo by McKenzie Powers)

The center will be co-directed by scientists at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences who focus on the human health aspects of cHABs.

While the center’s core research projects and investigators won’t change, its mission will evolve to pursue new directions stimulated by findings from some of the more than 70 research papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals by center-funded scientists since 2018, Dick said.

One key finding by center-funded researchers from U-M is that cyanobacterial toxins can become airborne in tiny particles called aerosols when waves break against Great Lakes shorelines and piers.

But how much of a human health hazard do those aerosols pose?

To find out, two new center-funded research projects, one led by Andrew Ault, associate professor of chemistry in LSA, and the other by David Kennedy and Steven Haller at the University of Toledo, will assess the occurrence, transport and effects of aerosolized cyanobacterial toxins on human health.

Ault will team up with Allison Steiner, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering in the College of Engineering; Casey Godwin, assistant research scientist in SEAS; and Judy Westrick of Wayne State University to study toxin release from cyanobacterial cells — as well as the aerosolization and transport processes — to test the hypothesis that climate change will increase human exposure to cHAB toxins through ingestion and inhalation.

Kennedy and Haller’s project will focus on human health effects, with special emphasis on populations that are vulnerable due to preexisting conditions such as asthma. That study will involve the first prospective assessment of the pulmonary health impacts of cHAB aerosols in susceptible populations in Lake Erie’s Western Basin.

“Our region has long grappled with algal blooms, and communities are eager for answers regarding their impact on human health,” said Kennedy, associate professor of medicine at the University of Toledo and co-director of Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health.

“Our study aims to provide vital insights, identifying at-risk populations and offering evidence-based information for healthcare providers and policymakers to enhance the health of our region.”

Two other existing center-funded research projects will continue during the five-year renewal period.

One, led by Steven Wilhelm of the University of Tennessee, looks at how climate change influences the proliferation and toxin production of various cyanobacterial harmful algal bloom species. The other, led by David Sherman of the U-M Life Sciences Institute in collaboration with Ashu Tripathi of the U-M Natural Products Discovery Core, seeks to reveal the diversity, distribution and bioactivity of known and undiscovered cyanobacterial toxins and related compounds.

Sherman is also the Hans W. Vahlteich Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and professor of medicinal chemistry in the College of Pharmacy, professor of microbiology and immunology in the Medical School, and professor of chemistry in LSA. Tripathi is an associate research scientist in the Life Sciences Institute and a research associate professor in the College of Pharmacy.

A photo of harmful algae bloom on Lake Erie
Green scum from a cyanobacterial harmful algal bloom in western Lake Erie. (Photo by Colleen Yancey)

The center’s four research projects are complementary and are unified by the goal of determining how climate change affects cHABs and how cHABs impact human health. Taken together, the projects will enable an assessment of the human health risks of cHAB toxins under current and future climate scenarios.

A Community Engagement Core led by Chris Winslow of Ohio State University will connect the center’s science to relevant communities, promoting communication of research outcomes to stakeholders.

“The threat to water resources in the Great Lakes, which hold about 95% of the surface fresh water in the U.S. and support a multibillion-dollar blue economy, is real,” Dick said. “But despite these serious threats, key scientific questions surrounding the climate drivers and health impacts of cHABs remain unresolved. Our knowledge is not yet sufficient to predict how a changing climate will impact cHAB distributions, community composition or toxicity.”

The center’s studies will combine observation, experiment and modeling at the nexus of lake science, climatology, microbiology and biomedical science. U-M will partner with researchers at Bowling Green State University, Ohio State University, the University of Toledo, Wayne State University, Michigan State University, University of Tennessee, the University of North Carolina, James Madison University, the State University of New York, and a Canadian allied partner, the University of Windsor.

More than 28 faculty researchers and dozens of students at the universities are expected to be involved.

In addition, center-funded researchers will develop new technologies for advanced monitoring and forecasting of cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms in collaboration with colleagues at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research laboratory and CIGLR based at U-M.

The new technologies will include the use of an autonomous surface vehicle for cHAB sampling in Lake Erie’s Western Basin, home to annual summer cyanobacterial blooms fueled by nutrient-rich runoff from croplands in the Maumee River watershed to the west.

Cyanobacteria blooms can result in higher water-treatment costs for local governments; they can prevent people from enjoying fishing, swimming, boating and visiting the shoreline; and they harm the region’s vital summer economy.

In August 2014, nearly half a million people in the Toledo area were without tap water for more than two days after high levels of the cyanobacterial toxin microcystin were detected in Lake Erie.

In the wake of the Toledo water crisis, the Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health was launched to better understand the serious threats that chronic cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms pose to the region.

Results of the newly relocated center’s studies will inform management strategies and public policies to protect drinking water and to safeguard human health in the Great Lakes region and in freshwater systems afflicted by cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms worldwide.

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