Harmful Algae Have the Right Genetic Stuff
Brown Tide Research Initiative - News
June 20, 2012, Stony Brook, NY - The Spring 2012 issue of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's Oceanus magazine includes the feature article "Harmful Algae Have the Right Genetic Stuff." The research spotlights the efforts of Dr. Christopher Gobler of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, among others.

This year marked the sixth consecutive year that the single-celled alga Aureococcus anophagefferens - whose prolific blooms are known as “brown tide" - turned the waters brown from Long Island's western Shinnecock Bay to eastern Moriches Bay, making for intense, though localized, brown tide conditions.

Aureococcus has contributed to major declines in the Long Island shellfish industry over the past 25 years,” said Dr. Jim Ammerman, Director of New York Sea Grant. “For the past 15 years, Sea Grant has supported a number of Dr. Gobler’s ecological studies of Aureococcus, several through the Brown Tide Research Initiative launched in 1996 and funded by NOAA’s Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms program. More recently, we have directly funded Gobler’s brown tide genomic research which suggests that Aureococcus is potentially well-adapted to exploit current coastal conditions of increased turbidity, metals, and organic compounds.”

This research was funded by New York Sea Grant, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. For more, check out the article below, which appeared in Oceanus magazine. This feature story is also available as a pdf.

New York Sea Grant's New York Coastlines also showcased this research in its Summer/Fall 2011 issue (click here). Findings from the study were published in February 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Oceanus magazine, which celebrates 60 years in publication this year, explores the oceans in depth, highlighting the research and researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Each issue covers a wide spectrum of oceanography, spanning coastal research, marine life, deep-ocean exploration, and the ocean's role in climate, as well as ocean technology and policy. For more on Oceanus, which is currently circulated to a readership of about 5,000, visit www.whoi.edu/oceanus.

New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York, is one of 32 university-based programs under the National Sea Grant College Program (NSGCP) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NSGCP engages this network of the nation’s top universities in conducting scientific research, education, training and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources. Through its statewide network of integrated services, NYSG has been promoting coastal vitality, environmental sustainability, and citizen awareness about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources since 1971.


Harmful Algae Have the Right Genetic Stuff
Oceanus, Spring 2012

Scientists from several institutions recently took a big step toward understanding the global rise in red and brown tides, the overwhelming blooms of harmful algae that cause environmental and economic damage in coastal waters. They analyzed the complete genome of the brown tide alga Aureococcus anophagefferens, the first harmful alga genome ever to be sequenced, and found that the alga has unique genes that may allow it to outcompete other marine phytoplankton in conditions that have been altered by human activities.

Specifically, A. anophagefferens has more genes than its competitors for metabolizing high levels of organic matter and toxic heavy metals from fertilizers and wastes found along heavily populated coastlines. It also has more genes to harvest light so it can survive for longer periods in murky estuaries clogged with organic matter.

“There are things it can do that the other algae can’t, and those advantages are encoded at the genome level,” said Sonya Dyhrman, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). She and Louie Wurch, a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, were part of a multi-institution research group led by Chris Gobler of Stony Brook University that analyzed A. anophagefferens genes and compared them with other phytoplankton in the same estuaries.

A. anophagefferens produces opaque brown tides in U.S. East Coast estuaries and in South Africa. Unlike other harmful algae, they are not toxic to people, but they are environmentally devastating, blocking sunlight and killing seagrass beds and commercial shellfish. No A. anophagefferens blooms were recorded before 1985. Now they are annual summer events that cause severe losses to shellfisheries, especially in Long Island, N.Y. In 2007, the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute sequenced A. anophagefferens's genome from cultured Long Island cells.

“It’s really exciting to be able to apply these new tools and a molecular approach to old questions about how organisms are functioning and interacting with their environment,” Dyhrman said. “By looking at when the genes are transcribed through a bloom, we’re hoping to provide the next piece in the puzzle — understanding what is fueling and causing the demise of blooms.”

“It’s incredible how much the technology has changed,” Wurch said. “We couldn’t do this when I first entered graduate school.”

The scientists’ findings were published in February 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

— Kate Madin

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