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Cyanobacteria toxins in the Salton Sea

Author(s): Carmichael Wayne | Li RenHui

Journal: Saline Systems
ISSN 1746-1448

Volume: 2;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 5;
Date: 2006;
Original page

Abstract Background The Salton Sea (SS) is the largest inland body of water in California: surface area 980 km2, volume 7.3 million acre-feet, 58 km long, 14–22 km wide, maximum depth 15 m. Located in the southeastern Sonoran desert of California, it is 85 m below sea level at its lowest point. It was formed between 1905 and 1907 from heavy river flows of the Colorado River. Since its formation, it has attracted both people and wildlife, including flocks of migratory birds that have made the Salton Sea a critical stopover on the Pacific flyway. Over the past 15 years wintering populations of eared grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) at the Salton Sea, have experienced over 200,000 mortalities. The cause of these large die-offs remains unknown. The unique environmental conditions of the Salton Sea, including salinities from brackish freshwater at river inlets to hypersaline conditions, extreme daily summer temperatures (>38°C), and high nutrient loading from rivers and agricultural drainage favor eutrophic conditions that encourage algal blooms throughout the year. A significant component of these algal blooms are the prokaryotic group – the Cyanophyta or blue-green algae (also called Cyanobacteria). Since many Cyanobacteria produce toxins (the cyanotoxins) it became important to evaluate their presence and to determine if they are a contributing factor in eared-grebe mortalities at the Salton Sea. Results From November 1999 to April 2001, 247 water and sediment samples were received for phytoplankton identification and cyanotoxin analyses. Immunoassay (ELISA) screening of these samples found that eighty five percent of all water samples contained low but detectable levels of the potent cyclic peptide liver toxin called microcystins. Isolation and identification of cyanobacteria isolates showed that the picoplanktonic Synechococcus and the benthic filamentous Oscillatoria were dominant. Both organisms were found to produce microcystins dominated by microcystin-LR and YR. A laboratory strain of Synechococcus was identified by PCR as being closest to known marine forms of this genus. Analyses of affected grebe livers found microcystins at levels that may account for some of the acute mortalities. Conclusion The production of microcystins by a marine Synechococcus indicates that microcystins may be a more common occurrence in marine environments – a finding not recognized before this work. Further research should be done to define the distribution of microcystin producing marine cyanobacteria and to determine exposure/response effects of microcystins and possibly other cyanotoxins in the Salton Sea. Future efforts to reduce avian mortalities and remediate the Salton Sea should evaluate vectors by which microcystins enter avian species and ways to control and mitigate toxic cyanobacteria waterblooms at the Salton Sea.
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