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River mystery solved

The pristine state of unpolluted waterways may be their downfall, according to research results published in a paper this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

A species of freshwater algae that lives in streams and rivers, called Didymo for Didymosphenia geminata, is able to colonize and dominate the bottoms of some of the world's cleanest waterways--precisely because they are so clear.

Didymo does so with a little help from its friends--in this case, bacteria--which allow it to make use of nutrients like phosphorus.

Blooms of Didymo, also known as "rock snot," says scientist P.V. Sundareshwar of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, are made up of stalks that form thick mats on the beds of oligotrophic, or low-nutrient, streams and rivers. Sundareshwar is the paper's lead author.

"In recent decades, human activities have led to many uncommon environmental phenomena," he says. "Now we have Didymo."

The freshwater diatom has become notorious. Didymo has taken over low-nutrient rivers in North America and Europe. It has also invaded water bodies in the Southern Hemisphere, including those in New Zealand and Chile.

Because its blooms alter food webs and have the potential to impact fisheries, "Didymo presents a threat to the ecosystem and economic health of these watercourses," says Sundareshwar.

Algae blooms are usually linked with the input of nutrients that fuel the growth of microscopic aquatic plants. Didymo's ability to grow prolifically in waters where nutrients such as phosphorus are in short supply puzzled scientists.

Environmental managers tried to mitigate Didymo blooms and predict their spread. But how the diatoms sustained such high growth in oligotrophic systems was unknown.

In a study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the State of South Dakota Carbon Scientist fund, Sundareshwar and colleagues revealed that Didymo i

Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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