Canadians take safe drinking water for granted. But a combination of chemicals and climate change have made blue-green algae blooms a threat to that safety, and investment in preventing toxic outbreaks a necessity.
In the same way that DNA testing has revolutionized criminology, genomics has transformed environmental research, enabling us to solve mysteries that could otherwise pose significant public health risks.
One of those problems is the growing contamination risk posed to Canada’s drinking water by blue-green algae blooms. The algae, known as cyanobacteria, have undergone a reproductive boom fuelled by global warming and increased phosphorous use. This explosion has choked food chains and disrupted fisheries from the Great Lakes to the Yellow Sea.
"Our partnership in the Algal Blooms, Treatment, Risk Assessment, Prediction and Prevention through Genomics project has enhanced our ability to identify the cyanobacteria that contaminate our water treatment facilities and determine the best methods for preventing and eliminating them. It is also helping us keep the Richelieu River clean."
- Eric Desbiens, chief of potable water division, City of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec
The proliferation of algae has fuelled activism by business and environmental groups, added to the litany of indirect effects of climate change and generated an annual springtime gallery of close-up and satellite photos of blue-green shoreline blobs from around the world. Algae blooms are estimated to cost $825 million annually in damages in the United States alone.
As with most environmental disruptions, algae blooms pose a risk not only to animal life – by causing hypoxia as a result of consuming disproportionate amounts of oxygen and creating vast “dead zones” – but to human health as well, by releasing cyanotoxins into the water supply that can cause illness and even death.
The Genome Canada-funded project Algal Blooms, Treatment, Risk Assessment, Prediction and Prevention through Genomics (ATRAPP) will leverage the science of genomics to predict, detect and prevent cyanotoxin outbreaks.
Led by Drs. Sébastien Sauvé and Jesse Shapiro of the Université de Montréal, along with Sarah Dorner of Polytechnique Montréal, the ATRAPP team will develop a chemical-genomic diagnostic toolkit. This toolkit will assess the risk of toxicity in water sources, and guide municipalities and water quality authorities in prevention and treatment strategies.
“Including genomic data will allow us to have an unprecedented database to build a much stronger model,” says Dr. Sauvé. “The genomic work will allow us to better understand the links with a broad range of toxins and hopefully identify which genomic biomarkers are best suited to help detection and prediction of blooms.”
Detection and prediction are particularly crucial because it is currently possible for drinking water to become contaminated by toxic algal blooms without that contamination being detected. The ATRAPP project aims to propose procedures to detect algal outbreaks so that drinking water treatment can be adjusted to prevent exposure.
The $12.3-million Algal Blooms, Treatment, Risk Assessment, Prediction and Prevention through Genomics (ATRAPP) project is one of 13 large-scale applied research projects delivering genomics solutions to challenges in Canada’s environment and natural resource sectors. ATRAPP partners include Génome Québec, among others.