Researchers at the University of Michigan are involved in a new national collaborative effort aimed at understanding the problem of harmful algae blooms. While U-M researchers will focus on the algae blooms in Lake Erie, their research will apply to the other Great Lakes and freshwater sources around the world.

David Sherman, a Hans W. Vahlteich professor of medicinal chemistry, and Gregory Dick, an associate professor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, co-lead a project, which focuses on studying the toxic byproducts of algal blooms, specifically those of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria. In particular, the project works to classify new toxins, identifying which are dangerous to humans and wildlife and which could potentially be developed to have medicinal value.

Microcystin, a toxin that causes liver damage, is one of the focuses of their research. Sherman and Dick are interested in understanding how the algae that produce microcystin and other toxins could potentially evolve and have unknown effects on human health.

“It’s important for us to know what the complexities of these toxins are,” Sherman said. “Are (the algae) making even more toxic materials? Over time, these organisms grow and mutate year after year after year. Are the toxins becoming more dangerous? Are they becoming less dangerous? Are they morphing into toxins that could cause other problems such as neurotoxicity?”

However, not all chemicals produced by cyanobacteria are dangerous. Some, according to Sherman, could be extremely valuable for pharmaceutical purposes.

“And we also have learned that the mutations can result in new toxins being made and we have no clue right now if they’re bad toxins, or if they could potentially represent future good molecules that we could turn into pharmaceuticals,” Sherman said. “And that’s a really interesting question, because many pharmaceuticals come from bacteria or fungi … There’s often a very fine line between these molecules that can cause disease on the one hand, like microcystin causing liver cancer, and other molecules that we’ve found produced by the same organisms that can cure the most deadly diseases.”

In response to the difficulty of classifying cyanobacteria, Sherman and Dick hope to develop strategies and technology to easily recognize known molecules, identify which algal blooms are dangerous and why, and understand the genetic basis of why some molecules are more harmful than others. To do so, their labs work in collaboration, with Dick focusing on collecting the cyanobacteria and analyzing the algae’s gene sequences, then sending them the samples to Sherman for a toxicology study.

Students working on the project include Colleen Yancey, a first-year Ph.D student in Earth and Environmental Sciences researching geomicrobiology under Dick. She plans for this 5-year project to be the focus of her doctorate.

“What’s great about this project is that there’s this huge opportunity for collaboration,” Yancey said. “I get the opportunity to work with someone like Dr. Sherman who is more in the pharmacology and biochemistry fields. So we have lots of opportunity to work with and learn from people that have different trainings and disciplines.”

The University-led project is one of three projects under the Lake Erie Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health, a new center based at Bowling Green State University established with a five-year $5.2 million grant. One of the projects is based at Bowling Green and focuses on understanding the environmental factors that promote the growth of different types of cyanobacteria. The other project is based at the University of Toledo and addresses the best methods for detecting blooms and how to best inform the public about cyanobacteria threats.

George Bullerjahn, director of the Lake Erie Center, said the U-M project is making strides in the unknown of algae blooms.

“Those two projects are basically extensions of we’ve been doing for a few years now, and we’re just doing it a lot better with a lot more money,” Bullerjahn said. “The Michigan Project is very exciting … That’s really the discovery project where really nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

The Lake Erie Center is one of three centers created by $30 million in funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation for studying algae blooms in oceans, estuaries and lakes. Of the three centers — the other two are based at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Florida Gulf Coast University — the Lake Erie Center is the one studying algal blooms in freshwater.

In the past, research on harmful algae blooms has typically focused on marine environments, especially dedicated to the issue of red tide and its effect on fisheries and shellfish. However, the importance of studying freshwater harmful algae blooms has gained traction, especially after cyanobacteria contaminated Toledo’s drinking water in 2014, forcing city officials to shut down the water supply for three days. Freshwater algal blooms also have implications for water recreation, tourism and wildlife health. According to Bullerjahn, as climate change occurs continues to impact the environment and nutrient pollution continues to contaminate waterways, harmful algae blooms could only become more problematic in the future.

However, Yancey said the technology to understand and prevent harmful algae blooms is becoming more advanced.

“What’s exciting about our research here at Michigan is we have rapidly evolving technology that is making it easier for us to classify and understand what specifically these bacteria are producing. And yes, it might be important for us to further classify and discover if there are new and different toxins out there,” Yancey said. “But it’s also exciting from the standpoint that we traditionally think of cyanobacteria as these negative, kind of like monsters. But if we have the potential to isolate or discover something that could be applied in biomedical sciences, that’s huge … So it really is cutting-edge research.”

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