Northwest Researchers Working on Quicker Way to Identify Toxic Algae Blooms

A University of Portland team is working on a way to detect the blooms — which can make people and animals sick, and devastate coastal economies — on a molecular level.

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Last year, there were  there were 267 reported incidents of toxic or harmful algae blooms globally, including two in Oregon.

In 2015, unseasonably warm water on the West Coast cost the Dungeness crab fisheries $48.3 million in lost revenue in the Pacific Northwest.

Harmful algal and bacterial blooms (HABBs) are toxic to humans and animals, and can lead to sickness in pets and humans. Last summer saw a harmful algae bloom in the Willamette River between Cathedral Park and Willamette Cove, leading the Oregon Health Authority to issue a recreational use health advisory. This summer, hundreds of dead or sick dolphins and sea lions washed up on the California coast as a result of a harmful algae bloom.

The global economy pays a high price during such events — HABBs in rivers, lakes and estuaries are estimated to cost more than $82 million in lost revenue each year in the United States, according to data from the National Ocean Service — and the problem may be worsening with rising temperatures. A 2021 research paper by the University of Delaware also linked rising global temperatures to increasing severity of HABBs. Other research has suggested damage from harmful algae blooms are more closely attributed to increased monitoring and human presence around the toxic blooms’ areas.

But there’s good news: researchers from the University of Portland, Willamette University and Walla Walla University have found a way to detect these blooms faster and easier.

Last week, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust announced a $235,000 grant to a Pacific Northwest research collation improving techniques for the early detection and identification of HABBs. U of P’s team received $131,630, Walla Walla University received $48,745 and Willamette University  got $54,625 from the foundation to who are trying to develop a new technique for quicker identification of the blooms.

Dr. Ryan Kenton, who leads UP’s effort to improve early detection methods, says traditional HABB detection involves collecting and observing water samples by microscope, a technique Kenton says can take hours, sometimes days, to produce accurate results.

Kenton’s team is developing a molecular approach to identify HABBs more quickly, and the plant species more accurately by comparing DNA.

“What you see in the microscope doesn’t always correspond to what the species actually is. It’s very hard to tell actual species apart they look so similar. The hope is will not only be able to get it faster but there’ll be a much more accurate system to determine exactly what is present in the water,” Kenton says.

While developing a method to stop these algae blooms isn’t within the scope of the research, Ryan says the coalition has already made significant strides since its formation, and is on track to complete the project by next summer.   

“The three schools or the four professors all have slightly varying skills and abilities and our specialties are slightly different, but together, we felt as though we could really improve this research and try something new,” Ryan says.

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