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Scientists find revolutionary way to 'sniff' out deadly algae: 'We need new and innovative monitoring'

The algae can be toxic for animals, especially dogs that drink water filled with it.

Presence of microcystin in the water

Photo Credit: iStock

Toxic algae can lead to health problems and billions of dollars spent on removal and control, but research from Oregon State University (OSU) has found an interesting way to discover their presence in waterways for early removal and treatment.

In a study published in mSystems and summarized by Phys.org, OSU researchers found that "sniffing" the water to detect gases released by algae can be an effective way to discover the presence of microcystin. 

Microcystin can be helpful to cells to "combat stress," according to study leader Kimberly Halsey. However, it is also a liver toxin and potential liver carcinogen. 

It is found in some harmful algal blooms (HABs), which can pollute water supplies. For example, an HAB contaminated the drinking water supply in Salem, Oregon, in 2018.

The discovery of HABs in a local area's water supply can lead to significant economic loss, with OSU placing this between $2 billion and $4 billion in the United States alone. 

"That means we need new and innovative monitoring for cyanobacteria and their toxins," Halsey said, noting that monitoring of waterways is expensive when samples need to be taken regularly.

The problem of HABs could be made worse by the effects of global heating, as drought affects water quality. Cyanobacteria, which make up HABs, also thrive with abundant sunlight and warmth, leading to blooms spreading more quickly.

Sniffing the associated gases could be a quick and cheap way to discover their presence, leading to faster prevention methods being put in place.

"Ideally we'll someday be able to sniff the air above the lake with instruments and see which gases are there during cyanobacterial blooms," Halsey said.

OSU also noted that toxins produced by cyanobacteria can cause gastrointestinal issues and skin rashes. It can also be deadly for animals, especially dogs who drink water filled with toxins.

Heat and warmth should also be considered a serious issue in the growth and spread of HABs. With that in mind, taking action to prevent global heating is essential to prevent the contamination of water supplies with the toxins produced by algae. 

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