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Timothy Davis

Probing the genetics of harmful algal blooms

by Caroline Mosley, NOAA Research Communications

Today, NOAA issued the 2015 Harmful Algal Bloom Season Forecast for Lake Erie that integrates rainfall, river flow, and nutrient runoff measurements into computer models to better predict toxic algal blooms. As part of a team of NOAA scientists, Timothy Davis, Ph.D. studies the genetics of toxic algae at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL). 

Collecting water samples on Lake Erie

Collecting water samples on Lake Erie

NOAA GLERL scientist Timothy Davis collects water samples from Lake Erie on Ocean Sampling Day, June 21, 2014. Credit: NOAA

Davis studies the genetics of harmful algal blooms (HABs) to better understand what drives bloom toxicity. His research focuses on how genes change over the course of the summer bloom season. Understanding how toxic blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) react to changes in temperature and nutrients on a molecular level allows Davis to understand why some blooms are more toxic and dangerous than others. This research is one piece of NOAA’s effort to better forecast the severity of HABs in Lake Erie and inform the public of any potential risks associated with a severe bloom.

Last year, the Toledo, Ohio water crisis brought Great Lakes HABs to the forefront of public attention. In early August 2014, toxins produced by a HAB overwhelmed Toledo’s water treatment facility. For two days, nearly half a million people were unable to use their faucets for fear of contamination from the toxins. This direct impact on public safety highlighted the importance of harmful algal bloom research at GLERL. 

“Lake Erie is sick,” explains Davis, “It is an unbalanced system, and larger, more toxic, more intense blooms may become more prevalent in the near future.”   

According to Davis, climate change will likely make blooms worse in both duration and toxicity. Warming lake temperatures, increasing rainfall, and a high amount of nutrients entering the ecosystem encourages the toxic strains of cyanobacteria to become more common.

Three genera of blue-green algae in Lake Erie can cause HABs, and these blooms can produce toxins that are harmful to people. The toxins from blooms can cause skin irritation from contact with the water, and could affect the liver and nervous systems if ingested in large quantities. In the lake ecosystem, HABs decrease the amount of light entering the water, disrupt food webs (most animals prefer not to eat them), and trigger low oxygen events that can cause fish kills. 

Davis did not start off studying algae; he calls himself a “converted oceanographer.” His childhood was spent looking for cold-stunned sea turtles on Long Island’s south shore.

Sampling during a harmful algal bloom in 2014

Sampling during a harmful algal bloom in 2014

NOAA GLERL scientist Timothy Davis sampling a harmful algal bloom in western Lake Erie near the Toledo water intake crib. Credit: NOAA

“I always said I would never study anything under a microscope,” jokes Davis. Today that statement could not be further from the truth, as Davis studies the genetics of cyanobacteria to better understand what drives the toxicity of blooms. Understanding bloom toxicity is an integral part of HAB forecasts that are disseminated to the public living on Lake Erie.  

The size of a bloom depends on the nutrients running into the lake from the surrounding farmland, linked to the amount of rainfall in spring and early summer. Ideal conditions for an intense bloom are high rainfall, high nutrient input, and warm water temperatures. But the genetic drivers behind bloom toxicity remain less clear.

Before he joined the NOAA team of scientists studying HABs, Davis travelled to Australia and Canada to study harmful cyanobacteria in drinking water, examine new technologies to better identify cyanotoxin producers, and better understand HABs on a global scale. Applying his molecular expertise to the 2015 HAB season, Davis analyzes algae toxins from water samples collected from Lake Erie to better identify and track blooms. 

Davis is also developing a real-time monitoring system, the Environmental System Processor, for both the identification of HABs species and the direct measurement of algae toxins in the Great Lakes by 2016. This will be the first time this monitoring system will used in the Great Lakes, greatly enhancing NOAA’s ability to provide updates and warnings to the public on a weekly and near-hourly timescale. 

The NOAA forecast issued today was created from an ensemble of models that will increase forecast accuracy and provide improved tools to resource and state managers as well as the public. As Davis continues to probe the genetics of algae, NOAA works to improve its HAB forecast and better inform the public of any risk of a severe bloom in the 2015 season. 

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at 301-734-1123 or by email at

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