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Blue algae - malicious killers?

Toxicologist Prof. Daniel Dietrich and his group of researchers at the University of Constance are working on clarifying the circumstances under which blue algae produce toxins and whether they are toxic for humans and animals.

Real life is often more thrilling than any detective novel could ever be, particularly when it comes to the life of Daniel Dietrich, a toxicologist at the University of Constance. His profession is extremely varied and the issues he works on are so complex that he never gets bored. As a toxicologist, toxins are evidently one of his major interests. A detailed knowledge of biology, medicine and chemistry are essential for his job, as are an enquiring mind, detective skills and the ability to foresee potential consequences. A toxicologist’s profession covers a lot of different areas and skills.
Wanted: Blue algae. Like a detective, toxicologist Daniel Dietrich investigates these organisms. (Photo: Aurelia Scherrer)
Wanted: Blue algae. Like a detective, toxicologist Daniel Dietrich investigates these organisms. (Photo: Aurelia Scherrer)

Interest in toxicology and crimalistics

“I have always been interested in medicine and very keen on criminality,” said Daniel Dietrich explaining what led to him becoming a toxicologist. Another deciding factor that inspired him in his choice was a talk by a toxicologist. The talk was about the risks and effects of dioxin and PCB, amongst other things, and their toxicity at various levels of concentration. This talk inspired Dietrich to become a toxicologist. He works with blue algae and their ability to produce toxins. “Blue algae are found in any pond; they form toxins under suitable environmental conditions,” said Dietrich, pointing out that not all blue algae are toxic. “There are thousands of species of blue algae; only a small number of these actually produce toxins,” said Dietrich who is concentrating on those which produce toxins. Exciting questions are: Under which circumstances do the algae produce toxins? Do they cause reactions in fish, birds, farm animals and humans?

Clarification of deaths in South Africa

Daniel Dietrich is currently working on a very exciting case in the Krüger National Park in South Africa, where a higher number than usual of zebra, black rhinoceros, hippopotamus, crocodile and lion species have died. Drinking water problems have led to the locals constructing dams, which prevent the water from being thoroughly mixed. Large amounts of nutrients accumulate, which creates a true paradise for blue algae. The investigations are now looking into whether the animals have died of toxic water or of toxic fish. Is a blue algae species responsible? Daniel Dietrich is using new methods in his effort to find out more about why the animals died, including the detection of toxins in the animals’ livers and other organs using antibody-mediated visualisation methods. “If we are able to show that the blue algae toxin has something to do with the death of the animals, then immediate action is needed. Solutions will have to be found to help to improve the storage of water to prevent the proliferation of toxic blue algae.”

Blue algae are a complex field of research

Dietrich is also dealing with another similar case in a particular region of Argentina where drinking water is taken from a dammed river. Areas with a drinking water purification plant do not experience the same problems as the population in areas that do not have access to these technologies. An increasing number of locals in the latter case have fallen ill. Daniel Dietrich is trying to find out whether the barrage contains blue algae and whether the algae caused the aforementioned health problems. If this is the case, then a simple but efficient water purification plant needs to be constructed. However, Dietrich’s interests go far beyond research and the identification of the causes of health problems. “I want to help successfully resolve all of these problems and put measures in place to prevent them happening.”

Dietrich’s research is very complex because many different influences and factors have to be taken into account. It would appear that climate change is not the only reason for the increase in blue algae. The question is, why are the toxin producers proliferating so rapidly? Daniel Dietrich hopes to find an answer to this problem and he is travelling to the Arctic in February to collect blue algae samples. He hopes that this will give him an idea of the origin and the further development of blue algae. However, it will not clarify all of his questions. Further research is required in order to build a comprehensive picture of blue algae and their potential for toxin production.

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/pm/blue-algae-malicious-killers