Boom times for algae and science
email this pageEmail to a Friend font size: Change text to small (default) Change text to medium Change text to large
Enlarge image
Collecting samples on R/V Tioga during one of the largest Red Tides in New England history are, from left, Theresa Black, Brenna Mahoney, Angie Moliter, Kerry Norton, and Bruce Keafer.
Related Links

» Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health

The historic 2005 “red tide” of the harmful algae Alexandrium fundyense was the most widespread and intense in New England since 1972. Concentrations of toxic algae grew to 40 times the norm, and the tiny plants spread to waters not usually affected by the species, which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans.

Through a combination of good luck and good planning, WHOI biologists were perfectly positioned to document the event and to collect thousands of samples of algae-filled water and sediment. Funded by the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health (see Centers section), a research team led by Dennis McGillicuddy, Deana Erdner, and Bruce Keafer went to sea on R/V Oceanus in May to examine the environmental conditions and biological phenomena that distribute and disperse Alexandrium. After the algae population exploded, NOAA funded the researchers to go back to sea on CRV Tioga and other vessels a dozen more times between May and December. Assisting him in sample collection were summer students Theresa Black and Brenna Mahoney, summer guest student Angie Moliter and research assistant Kerry Norton.

On shore, Erdner, Linda McCauley, Norton, and a corps of students and research assistants in Senior Scientist Don Anderson’s laboratory isolated and cultured the cells that wrecked so much havoc, analyzing the genetic and physiological makeup of Alexandrium communities from various locations. The study was founded on the idea that, as with humans, a single population is actually composed of different “races” or genotypes.

“We want to know who caused this bloom,” said Erdner, research associate in the Biology Department. “Did oceanographic and environmental conditions favor the bloom of a certain genotype of Alexandrium? So far, it appears that no single genotype dominated, but it’s too early to say for sure. We know there was a lot of genetic diversity at the beginning, middle, and end of the bloom.”

The investigative work will feed into computer models being developed to understand—and eventually predict—the conditions under which a bloom might develop and which type of algae might show up.

—Mike Carlowicz

» View more highlights for the Biology Department

Copyright ©2006 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, All Rights Reserved.

Mail: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 266 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA.
E-Contact:; press relations:, tel. (508) 457-2000

Home | Site Map | Contact