Great Lakes: Waterloo biologist sounds the alarm on invasive algae

Tiny invader could have huge environmental impact

Red algae may be replacing native species which could disrupt the ecosystem of the Earth’s largest surface fresh water system, says Waterloo researcher.

Bangia atropurpurea, a 160-million-year-old red algae, is quietly growing along the rocky shorelines of the Great Lakes and a Waterloo researcher says it’s time for scientists to determine its impact on the Earth’s largest surface fresh water system.

“We don’t know if it’s replaced other native fungi. In fact, we don’t even have a baseline of native species. And that’s disturbing now that we’re seeing such a dramatic change in the algae population.” 

KRISTEN MÜLLER, biology professor in the Faculty of Science

Müller is concerned about the lack of knowledge regarding this species and, more importantly, about the native algae that have been potentially lost, since little is known about the Great Lakes’ algae communities before 1970.

Algae can be just as destructive as other invaders

Red algae grows mostly during the winter and although it’s not toxic and has had no measurable impact on the Great Lakes so far, the invasion is still cause for concern, says Müller.

Bangia were first spotted around the Great Lakes in 1964. Müller, an expert in algae taxonomy, first characterized Bangia in 1998 and traced its lineage to Bangiamorpha, a 1.2 billion-year-old variety of marine algae. The modern freshwater variety Bangia atropurpurea split off from Bangiamorpha more than 160 million years ago. Using genetic marker analysis, Müller and her colleagues traced Bangia from Europe and Asia.  

Kristin Muller

More research needed into how algae moves

In addition to DNA sequencing analysis, Müller also uses morphology (physical) characteristics, taxonomy, and biological geography to understand why certain species are where they are. “It’s important to be able to identify species correctly,” Müller says. “Even the same genetic markers can be shared by very different species.”

Bangia’s sudden appearance and proliferation suggests it has been spread with the help of humans via shipping. Experts like Müller are still trying to determine if this was a single invasion or if Bangia have been brought over multiple times.

Recent restrictions on ballast water exchange aims to limit the number of potential invaders making the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, but algae like Bangia can circumvent these safeguards. Not only are they seawater tolerant, they can attach themselves to the outside of ships.

According to Müller, algae can spread easily — and if Bangia can make the journey, other more potentially destructive species could travel as well.

Photo credit: kershawj/iStock/Thinkstock