University of Florida researchers win grant to detect red tide toxins in air
Two years after a devastating Florida red tide event, scientists are hard at work developing a device that will detect the algae’s toxins in the air.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission awarded a $200,000 grant to two University of Florida professors working on the portable technology.
Professors Myoseon Jang and Dail Laughinghouse with UF have combined efforts to research and develop the device. The goal is to be able to measure how much brevetoxin, the neurotoxic compound found in red tide, is in the air during a bloom and detect how long it survives.
“People who are not scientists will be able to understand the quantity of toxins in the air,” Laughinghouse said. “FWC, life guards and different agencies can get better, on the spot concentrations.”
The final product will use colorimetry, much like the way pool owners test for chlorine with pH strips, Laughinghouse said. The device will display a specific color depending on how much brevetoxin is detected in the air.
Some of Laughinghouse and Jang’s previous collaborative work has been focused on cyanobacteria and microcystin progression in the air, a toxin found in blue-green algae.
“We looked at understanding the degradation of microcystin,” he said. “The problem is that there is a low quantity of the toxin in the air and it may degrade quickly, but that doesn’t mean there is not a public health threat.”
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Various factors such as ozone, ultraviolet light and even salt spray may affect how long the toxins last in the air, he said. The new device will be able to concentrate the toxic compounds found in red tide onto a modified filter.
Laughinghouse and Jang hope to be able to correlate the concentrations found in the water with those in the air.
“Microcystin is a different compound, but there are similarities in (brevetoxin) molecules,” he said. "In water, microcystin can last for days to weeks but we (Jang and other collaborators) found that, in the air, it lasts for about two hours and decreases quickly during the day compared to night.”
These advances will help researchers determine, among other things, how far these aerosolized toxins can travel.
“This is the first year (of research) and will be focused on the development of a method and will likely be lab-based in the first phase,” FWC spokeswoman Kelly Richmond wrote in an email. “The goal is to have a tool to measure these aerosol concentrations. This tool and its data will help to improve respiratory forecasts so that we can better inform the public.”
Fish kills and dead dolphins and manatees proved how deadly brevetoxin could be to marine life, but evidence also suggests humans may suffer respiratory and neurologic issues when it’s present in the air.
A 10-year study looked at the effects brevetoxin had on people who suffered from asthma. Barbara Kirkpatrick, director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System, was an investigator in that study, which found adverse effects could last days after people were exposed to aerosolized brevetoxin.
About 100 asthmatics participated in the study and would meet once a year during a red tide event and once a year when no red tide was present. Participants would walk along the beach for an hour and be tested prior to going out and then perform the same tests after the walk.
“What we found is that they had a decrease in their pulmonary function testing,” Kirkpatrick said.
She described the decrease as if the participant was trying to breathe through a drinking straw.
“They can still get air in and out but have to work a whole lot harder,” she said.
The device Laughinghouse and Jang are developing is good, she said, because there is a gap in the data concerning brevetoxin in the air.
“We certainly haven’t studied every environmental situation, whether it be wind or humidity, all those sorts of factors could play into how much toxin is in the air,” she said.
The Roskamp Institute in Sarasota, a non-profit organization focused on understanding diseases of the mind and potential treatments, performed a similar brevetoxin study, this time looking at how the neurotoxin affects the human brain.
“There’s a history, of course, of individuals going to emergency rooms during red tide with pulmonary conditions such as asthma,” said Michael Mullan, executive director at Roskamp. “There’s also an excess of people that go to emergency rooms who complain of neurological symptoms.”
Kirkpatrick was involved in the study that found these surges in neurological ER visits during red tides, and migraine-type headaches, were common.
“Think about it: you generally don’t go to the ER for a headache,” Mullan said. “It has to be pretty severe.”
Mullan and Roskamp have 400 volunteers in the Sarasota area. The organization looks at the level of exposure to brevetoxin and tries to gauge any neurological effects.
“It would be terrific to have a portable, maybe wearable, device to measure exposure,” he said. “For our studies, that would be really helpful.”
One difficulty in Roskamp’s work is how to actually measure the amount of the toxin any one person is being exposed to. Mullan said it would be terrific to be able to measure brevetoxin levels directly in the air.
After a 2015 red tide event in Padre Island National Seashore Park, Texas, a report in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases says 30-40 green tree frogs and one or two squirrels may have died from aerosolized brevetoxin.
The dead wildlife was found about a half mile inland and contained high levels of brevetoxins but “were in good body condition,” the report says. It is noted, however, that it is still unclear how sensitive tree frogs are to the brevetoxins, but other factors did support the “acute brevetoxicosis” diagnosis.
The grant is one of a few totaling $600,000, Richmond wrote in an email. The two other grants, on to fund a red tide communications plan and another to improve detection in the water, underline FWC's interest in red tide research. Laughinghouse said it’s important that he’s collaborating with Jang because the research into the technology is interdisciplinary.
“I’m very happy with the work and appreciative of what FWC has done,” he said. “I am very grateful for the initiative the governor has put in for this problem. I am glad they see a need for these concerns.”
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @karlstartswithk, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org