UdeM gets $12.3-million grant to study blue-green algae pollution in water

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Environmental chemistry professor Sébastien Sauvé heads a research team that has received $12.3 million to study water contamination by cyanobacteria.

A research team led by Sébastien Sauvé, a professor in Université de Montréal’s Department of Chemistry, has been awarded $12.3 million over four years from Genome Canada and Génome Québec to study blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which threatens the water quality of a growing number of lakes and reservoirs around the world. The algae "have existed for billions of year in concentrations that have not posed a problem," said Sauvé, whose grant, announced today, is the largest of his career. "But with global warning and an increase in phosphate levels from human sources, they've proliferated. Consequently, they've become extremely toxic in some water basins. It is a public-health problem because these algae are also found in municipal water supplies.”

With three colleagues – Jesse Shapiro, professor of biological sciences at Université de Montréal; Sarah Dorner, professor in the Department of Civil, Geological and Mining Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal; and Jérôme Dupras, professor of natural sciences at Université du Québec en Outaouais – Sauvé will lead a large team of researchers to better understand the blue-green algae phenomenon. In all, some 10 professors and 30 collaborators from Canada and abroad will be involved.

Their mission is to predict, prevent and treat the proliferation (or “blooms”) of blue-green algae and assess the risks associated with these contaminations. “In addition to the threats to humans, livestock, fish and wildlife, these proliferations are extremely costly: approximately $825 million annually in the United States,” according to briefing notes provided to the media in Montreal for the announcement by Canada's science minister, Kirsty Duncan, and Quebec's minister of economy, science and innovation, Dominique Anglade.

Sauvé’s study is the largest of the 10 projects selected in Genome Canada’s 2016 competition. Daniel Coderre, President and CEO of Génome Québec, praised Quebec's “unrivalled expertise in genomics.”

Even though he was already well-acquainted with the phenomenon of cyanobacteria-contaminated waters, Sauvé first got an inkling of its true magnitude when he saw satellite photos of Lake Erie that showed nearly half its surface had a greenish hue. The Great Lakes are a source of drinking water for 8.5 million Canadians, so the issue of contamination is critically important. “It’s a global problem,” Sauvé said. "Unfortunately, with the means now at our disposal, using mass spectrometry, by the time we confirm that water from a municipal source is contaminated, thousand of people have already been using it for several days.”

Algae genomics

In order to develop a “diagnostic toolkit” to assess the risk of water-source contamination and to guide municipal officials in adopting preventive and treatment strategies, Sauvé's team will have to trace the genetic code of the various micro-organisms involved. “There are around a hundred strains of cyanobacteria, as well as other bacteria that promote or inhibit the production of toxins, and we need study them in detail to assess their role in proliferation," Sauvé said. "Half of them are still largely unknown. We must therefore determine their genetic makeup in order to characterize them. Which genes are correlated with the production of toxins? How are they expressed before and during blooms? Under what conditions?

“Ultimately, we hope to provide municipal waterworks with an easy-to-use toolkit that uses a green-yellow-red colour code. One of our challenges is to predict when cyanobacteria concentrations become problematic. We have seen lakes change colour overnight.”

According to Quebec’s Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques, blue-green algae "bloom" when they  hits a concentration level equal to or greater than 20,000 cyanobacteria cells per millilitre. When a blue-green algae bloom occurs on the water’s surface, often near the shore, it is called “foam” and may have “the appearance of a paint spill or broccoli soup.” The government department regularly monitors blue-green algae, and its latest report lists 17 new cases of contamination in 2015 (including lakes in the Gaspé and Abitibi). These are in addition to 82 bodies of water already affected in Quebec.

The sampling area Sauvé's team will study extends outside Quebec and Canada. “We are confirming partnerships with China and other Asian countries, but we are certain that we can count on collaborations with Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the three Americas,” he noted.

Some inspiration from Finland

It is impossible to eliminate cyanobacteria, but interventions are possible at various levels to reduce the harmful effects of blue-green algae. “We would like to know, for example, whether cost-sharing is possible to help farmers change their methods, and to what extent," Sauvé said. "If this entails additional costs, will citizens and other stakeholders be willing to bear those costs, and will producers be willing to change their ways of doing things? Our work will help determine this."

Sauvé noted that Finland, a Nordic country with climate conditions similar to Canada’s, has managed to considerably reduce the effects of cyanobacteria in its lakes and rivers. “It proves that we can intervene effectively when we attack the right targets,” the researcher concluded.

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