A set of recent studies led by a 25-person team of scientists from the University of Michigan, University of Tennessee and James Madison University have offered insight into the reason for the contamination of Toledo’s water supply in 2014.

After the incident, scientists were aware that toxins from algal blooms in Lake Erie were responsible for leaving more than 400,000 residents without potable water for two days. Nonetheless, these researchers did not yet have formal scientific models that would explain why and how algal toxins were released — that is until scientists further examined the physiological traits of Microcystis, the cyanobacterial responsible for algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Algal blooms have been growing at an exponential rate ever since the 1990s in different water bodies across the world according to Steven Wilhelm, professor of microbiology at the University of Tennessee. Yet, until now, scientists could not explain how the proliferation of these organisms facilitated the spread of water contamination in places like Toledo.

“Algal blooms are growing in intensity, severity and frequency and we’re trying to understand why,” Wilhelm said. “This study is another piece of the puzzle.”

The new study, led by Wilhelm, found that Microcystis facilitated the spread of algal blooms in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2014, when the water supply crisis occurred, these cyanobacterial cells had a surprisingly intense viral infection.

Though this virus does not infect humans directly, it is capable of infecting cyanobacteria, and of breaking these organisms open. According to scientists, the Microcystis cell itself carries toxins harmful to humans, and it’s only when they break open that these cells can contaminate water supply and treatment centers, as explained by Gregory Dick, the University’s associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“This study provided insights into the environmental and biological conditions that led to the Microcystis bloom and Toledo drinking water supply shutdown in 2014,” Dick said. “It shows how molecular genetic data retrieved directly from water samples can shed light on the causes and impacts of toxic cyanobacterial blooms.”

Dick, a microbiologist and oceanographer, also emphasized the availability of resources for proliferation of cyanobacteria is an important factor in explaining algal blooms.

“In particular, these data indicate that the cyanobacteria were stressed for both nitrogen and phosphorus, suggesting that the availability of both nutrients is important for blooms,” Dick said. “The results also highlight the potential role of cyanobacterial viruses in affecting water quality. By infecting the cyanobacteria, they may well be releasing the toxin from within cells out into the water, where it is more difficult to remove.”

Sophomore Carly Sharp, a Civil and Environmental engineering major, said there should be more consideration given to environmental decisions, such as those involving algal blooms. 

“I think more often than not, the environment is seen in terms of remediation rather than prevention,” she said. “Whether you have to replace 8,000 lead service lines and provide filters to residents that don’t have access to clean water or you are implementing solar panels on your roof to reduce your carbon footprint, the environmental impact is an unavoidable component of our daily decisions. Currently, there has not been enough commitment made by the businesses or the government of Michigan to mitigate the impact of climate change and prevent environmental catastrophes such as a the Flint Water Crisis or algal blooms in the Great Lakes.” 

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