Toxic Algae Blooms Threaten People and Waterways in More Than 20 States
More than 20 states have seen occurrences of toxic algae blooms this summer, which have had far-reaching environmental and human health impacts across the country. The algae blooms can also be found around the world, in all climates from Greenland to Oman.
Utah swimmers have been sickened by the toxins, while beaches in Florida have been closed to protect beachgoers. In California, complete ecosystems are under threat due to the toxic blooms, NPR reported.
Some beaches in South Florida have been covered by a toxic algae sludge for months prompting Florida Gov. Rick Scott to declare local states of emergency in St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Lee counties in June.
California has reported the blooms in at least 30 lakes and reservoirs, California Water Resources Control Board scientist Bev Anderson told NPR.
"There's no question that we are seeing more harmful blooms in more places, that they are lasting longer and we're seeing new species in different areas," University of Maryland researcher Pat Glibert told the National Geographic earlier this month. "These trends are real."
A similar trend happened last year, when algae blooms practically covered the West Coast. In summer 2014, an outbreak in Lake Erie forced Toledo, Ohio to cut off city water to almost half a million residents.
The levels of toxins in the toxic blooms are what's most concerning, Anderson said. Twenty micrograms per liter would cause concern, but these blooms are reporting readings as high as 15,000 micrograms per liter.
Though the quality of drinking water is unlikely to be impacted due to screening in water plants, bathers and boaters can be sickened by the toxins.
One boater in California has noticed the change this summer.
"We've been here since 2002," kayaker Dave Holmes said. "It is by far the worst we've ever seen."
Local resident Wade Hensley had to be hospitalized because of the toxins, after his body became numb from the waist down after he dove into Discovery Bay in the middle of July. He still hasn't recovered feeling in half his body.
"It was about three days of swimming," he said. "Not constant, but in and out. And they can't pinpoint exactly what it is," Hensley said.
The increase in algae and the change in its composition is likely due to warming temperatures, Anderson said.
"We're getting higher temperatures than we've seen ever in the past," she said. "California had an unprecedented drought for the last five years which [has left] the water levels very low in a lot of areas."
Toxins are unusual in algae blooms, she noted.
"Some areas have been monitoring and seeing blooms for decades, but they've never had toxins," she said.
Blooms are also appearing in places that are unusual, including streams and mountain lakes.
Scientists are grappling with how to understand the impact of the blooms on local ecospheres.
"What emerged from last year's event is just how little we know about what these things can do," University of California-Santa Cruz toxic algae expert Raphael Kudela said.
Algae can have a variety of effects on nearby organisms, National Geographic noted. Some algae can alter the color of the waters around it and cause local air to be dangerous for humans to inhale. Other algae forms can cause fish and shellfish to die, and with them the humans that consume these fish and shellfish.
Other blooms can be so large that they deplete the local area of oxygen and force the death of other organisms.
"We expect to see conditions that are conducive for harmful algal blooms to happen more and more often," University of Maine's Mark Wells said. "We've got some pretty good ideas about what will happen, but there will be surprises, and those surprises can be quite radical."
Joaquim Goes, a researcher at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, thinks an increased use of fertilizers and substantial population growth are creating the conditions for these toxic algae blooms. But rapid glacial melt in the Himalayas, and the ensuing changes to monsoon patterns, are also causing problems.
It's also unclear how long toxic algal blooms have been a problem, especially in sparsely populated regions such as the Arctic, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center scientist Kathi Lefebvre said.
"It's a weird thing," she said. "We saw domoic acid in every species we looked at, so they are all being exposed to it. It's pretty clear that if you change temperature, light availability and nutrients, that can absolutely damage an ecosystem. But is it just starting? Is it getting worse? Is it the same as always? I have no idea."
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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