Nitrogen pollution drives harmful algae growth

Washington, Feb 7 (IANS) Nitrogen in oceans fuels the growth of two tiny but toxic algae species harmful to marine life and human health, warns a new study.

Researchers from San Francisco State University (SFSU) found that nitrogen entering the ocean, either through natural processes or pollution, spurs the growth and toxicity of a group of phytoplankton (algae) that cause amnesic shellfish poisoning among humans.

Commonly found in marine waters off the North American West Coast, these diatoms (phytoplankton cells) of the Pseudo-nitzschia genus produce a potent toxin called domoic acid, the Journal of Phycology reports.

When these phytoplankton grow rapidly into massive blooms, high concentrations of domoic acid put human health at risk if it accumulates in shellfish.

It can also cause death and illness among marine mammals and seabirds that eat small fish that feed on plankton, according to SFSU statement.

"Regardless of its source, nitrogen has a powerful impact on the growth of phytoplankton that are the foundation of the marine food web, irrespective of whether they are toxic or not," said William Cochlan, senior research scientist at SFSU's Romberg Tiburon Centre for Environmental Studies and study co-author.

"Scientists and regulators need to be aware of the implications of both natural and pollutant sources of nitrogen entering the sea," added Cochlan.

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