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University of Tennessee Team receives NSF support to study toxic water in China

More than 12 million Chinese rely on Lake Taihu for drinking water but about 20 years ago the once pristine lake turned pea green. It had become overrun with toxic blue-green algae which can damage the liver, intestines and nervous system.

Two researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will be working on an international team funded by two new National Science Foundation awards totaling $2.5 million to resolve the ecosystem balance in the lake. Their work could help safeguard America's water supply.

"China provides a unique opportunity to test ideas and management efforts in highly polluted and nutrient enriched lakes that we predict we will see in North America in the coming decades," said Jennifer DeBruyn, an assistant professor in the Department for Biosystems Engineering and Soil Sciences.

DeBruyn and Steven Wilhelm, professor of microbiology, will team with an international group of researchers and students to combine molecular biology, ecological analysis and environmental remediation. Their goal is to create mathematical models of how ecosystems function based on quantitative data generated by state-of-the-art molecular biological techniques. They will then provide an informed strategy to Chinese government officials.

"Over the past three decades, industrial effluents, farm runoff, and sewage have besieged Lake Taihu, pushing its ecosystem critically out of balance," said Wilhelm. "In the summer, when lake surface temperatures heat up, blue-green algae blooms with a vengeance."

Just as the saying goes "it takes a village to raise a child," Wilhelm says a toxic algal bloom has many parents. The researchers will examine all the organisms that could be contributing to the blooms, including looking at what they are consuming and the waste products they are creating for a comprehensive picture of how the blooms are created.

"We will literally be counting the activity of genes in different organisms and then seeing how that influences the environment," Wilhelm said. "We will be doing a number of projects such as measuring how fast cells assimilate nutrients, while other students will be quantifying the expressing of genes associated with these processes."

In the end, they will have a science-based strategy to guide Chinese provincial and central government officials in bringing and maintaining Lake Taihu below the toxic algae threshold. That strategy will be transferrable to similar lakes worldwide.

The research is supported by the NSF's INSPIRE and Dimensions in Biodiversity programs. Both awards are over four years.

Under the INSPIRE program, the researchers will examine how different chemical forms of nutrients interact with climate change to control which populations of algae proliferate in lake systems. They will collaborate with professors Hans Paerl of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Gregory Boyer from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Under the Dimensions in Biodiversity program, the researchers will seek to understand how the microbial members of the lake community interact to control ecosystem health through biogeochemical, molecular biological and mathematical modeling approaches. Five American and four Chinese academic institutions will collaborate on the project.

Contact: Whitney Heins
University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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University of Tennessee Team receives NSF support to study toxic water in China
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