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University of South Florida Researchers Battle Red Tide with Two New Grants

With federal grants from NOAA, USF scientists will work on new forecasting and identification technologies to fight the issue.

TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 28, 2015) – Scientists from the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science and colleagues have received a total of more than $750,000 in two separate grants to further the development and implementation of new technologies to forecast occurrences of “red tide” and to identify Karenia brevis (K. brevis), the organism that lies at the root of the toxic blooms. Red tide, a condition toxic to marine life, is a threat to public health and to marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and is responsible for an estimated $50 million in losses in the shellfish, fish, recreation and tourism industries annually, according to USF ocean researchers.

“Red tide is classified as a ‘harmful algal bloom,’ or HAB,” says Dr. John Paul, Distinguished University Professor and biological oceanographer at USF and who, along with Dr. Robert Weisberg, Distinguished University Professor and physical oceanographer at USF, each recently received National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants to either identify or predict red tide. “K. brevis can cause widespread fish kills and also seriously impact human health when toxins become aerosolized along beaches.”

Red tide toxins - which can turn the water red, brown, or even black - can easily end up in the food web and be transferred to other forms of life, from tiny zooplankton to birds, fish, aquatic mammals and even humans. While red tide blooms occur naturally almost every year in the Gulf of Mexico, some years are worse than others. The ability to forecast when and where the HABs may appear, and how bad they may be, will be a useful tool in the battle against the destructive red tide combination of toxins, called ‘brevetoxins.’

“In collaboration with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, we are developing predictive tools that we can use for short term and seasonal red tide predictions,” explains Weisberg. “This work will allow a number of agencies to better mitigate the negative effects of HABs.”

Scientists have recently begun to appreciate that both the biology of the organism and the physics of the ocean circulation may be equally important for bloom development. Both provide necessary conditions, but neither alone provides a sufficient condition for a bloom to occur.

Existing tools for short term red tide predictions, including satellite color imagery, K. brevis cell counts and ocean circulation models supported by other observations. It was recently determined that ways in which the deep ocean currents interact with the continental shelf slope can alter the currents on the shelf, thereby changing shelf water properties in ways that may or may not be conducive for bloom development.

“Interactions resulting in a prolonged upwelling of new nutrient-rich water onto the shelf will suppress or cause bloom development,” explains Weisberg, whose three-year NOAA grant for nearly $300,000 was awarded earlier this month. “Our work will attempt to exploit these deep-ocean and shelf interactions as a way to provide seasonal predictions. Given a bloom occurrence, the existing tools of satellite color imagery, cell counts and short term model trajectories will be used to track blooms as they move along the shoreline. Ultimately, we require a more complete ecological model that couples the biology and the physics to make forecasts. Our work is in collaboration with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and information obtained will be of help to the management agencies, such as the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Agriculture to better mitigate the negative effects of blooms.”

The other new tool being developed at USF College of Marine Science to monitor coastal waters and estuaries along the Florida coasts is a rapid, sensitive, hand-held sensor that can recognize the genetic and chemical elements of algal toxins.

“The goal of our research is to develop, demonstrate and then transfer to end users a hand-held genetic sensor that can help monitor when adapted for use with the AmpliFire hand held sensor we have already developed to carry out genetic testing,” says Paul, principal investigator on ta three-year grant of more than $475,000 that also started this month.

The development of the hand-held K. brevis sensor will be carried out in three phases, says Paul. In phase I they will enhance the extraction and analysis RNA from K. brevis cells. Phase II will include training end-users, such as state and county monitoring agents, in the use of the AmpliFire. Phase III will see the technology go to the end users and have the data they collect on HABs integrated into other monitoring networks such as those operated by NOAA.

“We want to simplify to extraction and analysis of RNA from K. brevis samples, add a K. brevis calibrator molecule, and increase the utility of the software,” explains Paul. “We want to be able to transfer to end users the most advanced and useful technology possible.”

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