Algal answers in Africa? BGSU researchers study bloom in Kenya


With a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant funding the trip, Bowling Green State University researchers left this week to study toxic algae in Africa.

Research co-leaders George Bullerjahn, Ph.D. and Mike McKay, Ph.D., left with their team on Thursday for a three-week trip to Kisumu, Kenya, to compare and contrast a harmful algal bloom in Lake Victoria, that appears to be very similar to the annual bloom in Lake Erie.

“It’s an initial comparative study. The goal here is trying to figure out if there are universal rules for how these blooms form and persist,” Bullerjahn said. “We want to predict toxicity. We don’t know that, yet, anywhere we are.”

Bullerjahn teaches at BGSU and is the director of the Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health. McKay is an adjunct professor of biology at BGSU, a professor at the University of Windsor and the executive director of the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research. The team also includes several graduate students, as well as BGSU environmental science professor Kefa Otiso, Ph.D., who is Kenyan.

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake, after Lake Superior. Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya share Lake Victoria.

“Kenya has the smallest piece of it, but it also has the most environmentally challenged piece of it, because it has this gulf that extends east of the lake. This is really shallow water. There are a lot of rivers here delivering nutrients, that are not only agricultural sources, like Lake Erie, but also there are issues with respect to sanitation,” Bullerjahn said. “The rest of the lake is in fairly good shape, environmentally. It’s just this gulf which is really under assault by all the nutrients, that kind of stay in this gulf. It doesn’t get flushed out very easily.”

They have flown into Nairobi, Kenya, and then will take a six-hour, 220-mile bus trip to Kisumu, Kenya, on the coast of a large eastern bay of Lake Victoria. The bay has unique characteristics that make it similar to the western end of Lake Erie, at the mouth of the Maumee River, where the HAB forms.

Once on the lake, the researchers will spend most of their time studying the area in a research vessel and taking samples from a variety of locations around the perimeter of the bay.

Researchers know that the toxins come from the algae, and the larger blooms tend to be more toxic, but the timing and size do not seem to be related.

“The two big things we want to know are, can we predict toxicity? How do we know when a bloom becomes more toxic,” Bullerjahn is asking. “In addition to all the green stuff and cyanobacteria, there are other microbes in the water that help the bloom form and persist. What are they doing? How do they make that happen? When we compare Lake Erie to Lake Victoria, do we see the same kinds of microbes present?”

The primary difference between this section of Lake Victoria and Lake Erie, is that Victoria is tropical and never freezes, like Lake Erie.

“Here, this lake doesn’t freeze. It’s on the equator. Do we see a similar microbial community in a lake that doesn’t freeze, in comparison to a lake that does?” Bullerjahn said. “Trying to understand what these microbes do will really help us predict how these blooms form.”

The Lake Victoria bloom is year-round, but it varies in size, somewhat related to the equatorial rainy season. Bullerjahn said that the Africans have documented the bloom, because it can be done by satellite, and “they have done some very nice work looking at water flow and rates of exchange with the main lake.”

The toxicity level of the Lake Erie HAB in 2014 prompted a shutdown of the Toledo water system for more than 400,000 people during two days at the peak of the bloom, resulting in an estimated $65 million total economic loss. Almost 50,000 of those water customers were from Wood County.

This is a continuation of work started in 2018, but put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers are very familiar with the status of Lake Erie.

“We go out in the Ziggy, (the BGSU) boat … it goes out every other week. Then in the off week we go out with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources,” Bullerjahn said.

This is the second trip to Lake Victoria, which he said was to confirm that there were common interests. That trip resulted in the NSF application for the $400,000 grant, which they received. They planned on doing two more follow-up research trips, but with inflation and the cost of fuel, it may be cut back to only one more trip.

The team will also collaborate with researchers from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and Kisii University, as well as representatives from six other North American universities. Additionally, three BGSU graduate students will conduct self-driven research projects during the trip.

“I’m excited about this being a great educational opportunity for the grad students. They are going to be applying their scientific knowledge to a new, but related set of problems and they are going to be working with folks from another culture, and learning about life in Kenya. I think that is going to be priceless knowledge. I hope no one falls overboard,” Bullerjahn said, adding a little wry humor.

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