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New Research at FGCU Explores Using Viruses to Combat Blue-Green Algae

Blue-Green Algae Samples in Dr. Isern's Lab
Mike Kiniry / WGCU
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

New research just getting underway at Florida Gulf Coast University is exploring a novel approach to possibly someday controlling blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria.

For the past 15 years Dr. Sharon Isern has studied things like Zika and Dengue in her lab on the FGCU campus. Now she and her research partners are turning their virus expertise toward blue-green algae.

While commonly referred to as an algae, cyanobacteria is just that, a bacteria. And, like all bacteria, it has viruses that live inside of it, and those are called phages. She says some of them will cause it to flourish, some will cause it to die.

“And so the whole idea is to find naturally occurring viruses and test them in our lab strains of algae. If these water samples show that they can kill the algae in the lab we will then isolate them, grow them up and characterize them. And then these viruses could potentially be used to treat blooms.”

Dr. Isern says these phages are already in the water, and will only affect blue-green algae, so they’re trying to isolate the ones that are harmful to cyanobacteria, and then strategically introduce them back into the system to nip blooms in the bud.

Alicia Belony is a senior biology major who’s on the research team. She says it is gratifying to work toward solving what’s become a local crisis.

“It’s really exciting because we’re trying to solve a local issue, and the fact that I might be able to help out in that way is really exciting for me.”

Dr. Isern says because bacteria are always changing, the hope is to find as many viruses as possible that kill cyanobacteria to try to stay ahead of its variations – much like flu vaccines from year to year.

And again, she emphasizes phages only infect bacteria, and a phage for one type of bacteria will not affect other kinds of bacteria, so there is no risk of harming other organisms in the environment.

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Mike Kiniry is producer of Gulf Coast Live, and co-creator and host of the WGCU podcast Three Song Stories: Biography Through Music. He first joined the WGCU team in the summer of 2003 as an intern while studying Communication at Florida Gulf Coast University.