Measuring toxins produced by cyanobacteria to protect our waters

- Halifax, Nova Scotia

Water is a vital resource to human life and the environment, but water quality is increasingly under threat due to toxin producing cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue-green algae, are photosynthetic bacteria that are common in all fresh water and marine environments.

They can spread quickly, especially during the summer. When they become too abundant, cyanobacteria can form blooms on the surface or dense mats on the bottom of lakes and rivers. The water can turn green, and during significant blooms its texture and colour becomes similar to pea soup.

Developing cutting-edge analytical methods for measuring toxins produced by blue-green algae

Recognized internationally as one of the world's top labs working on algal toxins, the Biotoxin Metrology team (BTM), based in Halifax, Nova Scotia has expanded their research to include freshwater cyanobacterial toxins. If conditions are right, blue-green algae blooms in lakes and rivers can create risks for freshwater systems used for drinking and recreation. In addition to presenting risks for humans, this can affect livestock, pets and natural health food products. Increased occurrence of cyanobacteria blooms can impact aquatic ecosystem health, structure, function and have subsequent impacts on water quality management and drinking water treatment.

As blooms of toxic cyanobacteria are becoming a recurring issue in lakes and rivers across Canada and around the world, research is necessary to understand the distribution and drivers of these toxin producers in our important freshwater systems. Going forward, BTM and the NRC will also play an important role by collaborating with government departments to provide better public information on how to recognize and avoid the risks associated with cyanobacterial toxins.

"Since the beginning of the toxin research program at the NRC in the 1980s, a fundamental focus has been understanding the biology of harmful algae and the chemistry of the toxins they produce," says the NRC's Pearse McCarron, Team Leader, Biotoxin Metrology. "With this knowledge basis we have been able to advance our understanding of biotoxin chemistry and in turn, develop cutting-edge analytical methods and reference materials for measuring toxins produced by algae."

Stay tuned to learn more about this important research.

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