Algal Blooms

Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Algae is defined as a simple, nonflowering, and typically aquatic plant of a large group that includes the seaweeds and many single-celled forms. It is very versatile and can be found in a variety of different locations on earth such as lakes, rivers, ponds, and oceans. Like most plants, algae can be useful and good for the environment. This aquatic plant takes in Carbon Dioxide and emits Oxygen in place of it. It is also the primary source of food for animals that are at the bottom of the food chain such as krill and other small aquatic creatures. However, if unchecked, algae can be a menace to our waters.

Algal blooms (a large unchecked “wall” of algae) turn harmful when the protists start producing a toxic substance that is not only harmful to marine life, but to humans as well. Ailments from the brevetoxins produced by the wall of red algae, dubbed the Red Tide, can be fatal. Traditionally, brevetoxins work as either neurotoxins or as hemolytic agents. They are tasteless and are a lipid (an organic compound that is also a fatty acid) substance. Being a lipid, Brevetoxins are easily absorbed by the skin and can easily cross the blood-brain barrier. It is estimated that 60,000 people die annually from breve toxicity.

The molecular formula of Brevetoxin

Although this is a global occurrence, one of the more notable cases of harmful algal blooms occurs annually off of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Not only does the water turn red, as the name suggests, but the surrounding air gets very hard to breathe. As previously mentioned, large amounts of decaying algae have a tendency of absorbing up all the oxygen present in the water. This phenomenon of “eating all the oxygen” is called hypoxia. Hypoxia has a very simple cause. The ocean has varying levels of oxygen in different places. This is the result of the balance/imbalance of oxygen input/output between the atmosphere and certain biological processes. Some of these processes produce oxygen, while others consume it. When water becomes hypoxic, it is unable to sustain life. This creates “dead zones”. Just as the name suggests these zones contain little traces of life. Fish, coral, and shellfish all die from “asphyxiation”: when a living organism is deprived of oxygen.

Many businesses that are near coasts around the world also suffer as a result of these harmful blooms of algae. Beaches, piers, and other tourist attractions are all shut down due to the toxins and the harmful air quality. It is estimated that the United States economy loses 82 million dollars annually due to these “walls” of algae. In addition to these attractions, the fishing businesses also take a hit meaning temporary food shortages in certain places around the globe that rely on seafood as the primary means of consumption. Because of this, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working on technology that will help predict these blooms. In a nutshell, the process relies on satellites, buoys, and oceanic sensors, all of which collect ocean quality/(ocean) current data. If the data implies that there is an algae bloom, scientists work to figure out where the bloom will move to. From there, local health officials alert the public and businesses.

-Yash Banga

Author of StemTalksNC


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