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Here’s toxic tale of Annie, Fannie, Mike

Blue-green villains behind Lake Erie’s history of algae woes

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    Algae samples at Maumee Bay State park in Toledo, Ohio, in 2010.

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    Algae is visible in Lake Erie near the Toledo water intake crib.

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    Microcystis fills a glass of Lake Erie water near the Toledo water intake crib.

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Microcystis fills a glass of Lake Erie water near the Toledo water intake crib.

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We begin today’s attempt to sort out the highly arcane, often-confusing science of Lake Erie algae with three simple names: Annie, Fannie, and Mike.

They’re not your friends.

Take a deep breath and hang with us as we throw a little gobbledygook your way:

Anabaena, known to Great Lakes scientists as “Annie,” can attack your central nervous system.

So can Aphanizomenon, which scientists euphemistically call “Fannie.”

Both have the same toxins found in red tides that kill ocean shellfish.

Microcystis, which scientists refer to as “Mike,” goes after the liver.

It is the type of harmful algal bloom that has gained the most attention from Great Lakes scientists in the past 19 years because it has grown exponentially and has become the most dominant of those three.

None of them is new.

According to David Culver, a retired Ohio State University algae researcher who has delivered congressional testimony on such things, Annie, Fannie, and Mike are among the oldest living things on Earth.

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Scientists believe they have been around for 3 billion of the planet’s 4.54 billion years.

Mr. Culver said they were around when the Great Lakes were formed 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.

“Oh, surely,” he said.

The problem now is the system’s out of whack.

Nature’s out of balance.


Feeding a monster

Microcystis shouldn’t have nearly the presence it has in the western Lake Erie water column. But northwest Ohio, southeast Michigan and, to some degree, northeast Indiana have been feeding it tons of nutrients in the form of fertilizer and manure runoff, sewage spills, and lawn products.

The more anything’s fed in nature, the more it tends to grow.

Heat and sunlight help it grow, especially in a shallow body of water such as western Lake Erie, which warms up faster than other lakes.

“They grow best under warm conditions and lots of nutrients,” Mr. Culver said.


Algae samples at Maumee Bay State park in Toledo, Ohio, in 2010.

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The annual blooms actually start in the Maumee River as early as March or April, he said.

It is unclear if they flow out to Lake Erie and continue to thrive there. More than likely, the lake creates its own algal blooms, Mr. Culver said.

Jeff Reutter, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory director, also noted that spring algae blooms are not uncommon in Sandusky Bay at the mouth of the Sandusky River before they peak in late summer in the deeper, open water of western Lake Erie.

Those scientists and others have said algae blooms have started arriving earlier and staying later because of climate change.

But why has Mike outmuscled Annie and Fannie in recent years?

Mr. Culver believes nitrogen has worked in tandem with phosphorus to grow more microcystis.

Annie and Fannie are more dependent on phosphorus, he said.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are two of the world’s most popular fertilizers.

In this part of the country, the focus has been on phosphorus: It’s the most abundant here and appears to be the biggest driving force behind any algae growth.

But one of the emerging research fields is the degree to which the level of nitrogen affects the toxicity and type of algae that becomes dominant, according to research presented in July at OSU’s Stone Laboratory by its research coordinator, Justin Chaffin.

“Having extra nitrogen will exacerbate a bloom,” Mr. Chaffin told reporters then.


Microscopic miscreants

The Great Lakes have never been totally algae-free — and that’s a good thing.

There are dozens of types of algae, most of which are harmless and at the bottom of the food chain, Mr. Chaffin said.

Tiny organisms that feed off microscopic algae are consumed by fish that humans eat.

Think of Annie, Fannie, and Mike as the Terrible Trio, the most notorious deviants.

They’re anything but healthy algae because of the toxins they carry.

Here’s a fact most people don’t know: Annie, Fannie, and Mike are not, in terms of science, actually considered algae.

Although classified as harmful algal blooms, Annie, Fannie, and Mike are what’s known as cyanobacteria.

They’re commonly called blue-green algae because of their color.

But as a matter of science, they’re considered prehistoric forms of bacteria that mimic algae because of their ability to photosynthesize — the process by which green plants transform light into energy, Mr. Culver said.

Each has had turns coming and going in abundance.

Isabel Escobar, a University of Toledo engineering professor and associate dean for research development and outreach, said she has read accounts of western Lake Erie algae outbreaks going back as far as the 1920s. Blade archives show strong algae outbreaks during the 1940s and 1950s. It’s not known what types of algae those were.

Mr. Culver said he believes Mike was dominant at least once in the distant past. He said Annie and Fannie were the dominant species in the 1960s and 1970s.

Starting in the summer of 1995, microcystis — or Mike — became the most dominant form of free-flowing algae in Lake Erie. It has appeared almost annually since then.


Extremely potent toxin

The toxin produced by microcystis — called microcystin — is, pound-for-pound, one of the most potent toxins found in nature.

It can be lethal to humans and animals if ingested in large enough doses. It can cause skin rashes and a host of other side effects, such as liver and kidney damage.

Even inhaling droplets of water containing the toxin can give people stomach cramps and a sick, nauseous, dizzy feeling.

Those most at risk are children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing conditions that have weakened their immune systems.

The toxin killed 75 patients of a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1996 when it slipped past a broken water-treatment system there.

Scientists have learned there is not a direct correlation between the size of an algae bloom and the amount of toxin released.

It’s possible to have a large bloom of algae and little toxin — or a lot of toxin for a relatively small amount of visible algae.

Years ago, conventional wisdom was the threat was over once the algal blooms dissipated by mid to late October.

Scientists such as Linda Merchant-Masonbrink of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency have said the toxin lingers for an unknown time after blooms fade away.

Nobody knows exactly how much longer it lingers, or whether it dies and regenerates, or just lays dormant.

Last winter’s brutal cold and thick ice put the 2013 algae to about as hard of a test as nature can give it.

But researchers wonder if the three mild winters before that one — and the forecast for more mild winters in the future — will exacerbate the problem.

In the case of microcystis, toxins are released as algae cells die and bubble to the surface.

Microcystis is a free-floating algae that mats up in the open water.

Look closely and you can see its pea-soup color is the result of millions — probably billions — of tiny green particles.

Annie, Fannie, and Mike should not be confused with another toxic blue-green algae, lyngbya wollei. It grows on the lake bottom and forms long, spaghettilike strands that typically wash up on shores.

Lyngbya wollei could be an invasive.

It is more prevalent in the South but has been seen along western Lake Erie shorelines and beaches in recent years.

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.

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