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Researchers use genes as HAB early warning system

Staff Writer |
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have sequenced the genes of a harmful algae bloom (HAB).

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They are unveiling never-before-seen interactions between algae and bacteria that are thought to propagate their growth.

In the U.S. alone, experts estimate that harmful algae blooms have been responsible for more than $82 million in annual economic losses due to fish kills and poor water quality that makes water undrinkable and limits recreational use.

The work also opens up the possibility of forecasting the appearance of a bloom and taking measures to prevent it - work that can save millions, even billions of dollars, in economic losses worldwide.

"This technique has given us one of the most detailed looks to date into the strategy algae use to grow uncontrollably, leading to devastating consequences in our coastal communities," said Adrian Marchetti, who led the research in UNC's department of marine sciences.

"It is also one of the first efforts to get the algae to tell us what's going on in their natural environment, which wasn't possible to this degree before. Now, states have the potential to be more prepared than ever to warn the public about the potential of a harmful bloom and mitigate their effects."

Harmful algal blooms occur when colonies of algae - simple plant-like microorganisms that live in the sea and freshwater - grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, oysters and other shellfish, marine mammals and birds.

Algae can grow uncontrollably when too many nutrients overload the water system, making conditions ripe for a bloom especially when combined with increased temperatures and a dry spell after a heavy rain.

In the past decade, harmful algal blooms have increased not only in the Neuse River Estuary, off the coast of North Carolina where the study took place, but have been reported in every US coastal state.

With climate change, harmful algal blooms are anticipated to rise, further affecting our coastal and lake communities.

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