Clean Water, Green Water
Biology Professor Bob Sheath's research shows that algae make excellent indicators of fresh water quality.
Water. It's essential to life as we know it. And while water covers over 75 percent of our planet, less than three percent is fresh. Preserving the quality of water for drinking, agriculture, recreational and business use is arguably one of the most important issues facing society today.
CSUSM Professor Bob Sheath, an aquatic biologist, is one of the preeminent experts on North American freshwater algae. He says that while Californians have access to some of the highest quality water in the world, his research has shown that there is no pristine, unpolluted water in the state.
Partnering with the State Water Resources Control Board's Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP), Sheath and colleagues have crisscrossed California and its nine water districts, studying how algae can be used as an indicator of water quality and creating protocols for algae field sampling and study.
"Algae are sensitive to chemical and physical water conditions," explained Sheath. "Some toxins will cause algae to disappear, other conditions will cause algae to appear in major blooms."
Although fish and invertebrates are frequently used as biomonitors of water quality, Sheath explained how algae provide certain advantages. "Algae are one of the simplest and most diverse forms of plant life and can be found in all water conditions, including small streams or drying lake beds where other organisms can't survive; and they are sensitive to some pollutants and other conditions at levels which may not visibly affect others."
In his laboratory on the first floor of Science Hall II, Sheath is currently concentrating on algal taxonomy and analysis. Employing two CSUSM biology graduate students — Nick Ainslie and Cricket Vanderwerken — and a post-doctorate research associate, Rosalina Stancheva, the research involves a combination of field and laboratory work including advanced microscopy and molecular analyses.
Samples collected in freshwater sources such as streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and wetlands are analyzed and identified, a challenging task considering that soft-bodied algae — the laboratory's primary focus — fall across a number of taxonomic kingdoms.
"There are thousands of species of algae," commented Vanderwerken, who is wrapping up her studies this year. "In California there are at least 800 identified species and in Southern California about 300. It definitely makes identifying each one a challenging puzzle."
This diversity is what makes the plants particularly good water-quality indicators — different algae thrive in a variety of conditions. Over the course of this research, Sheath and others have discovered four new species of algae to science.
"Working with Dr. Sheath has been a great experience," commented Ainslie. "He's a world expert on freshwater red algae and one of the main reasons that drew me to pursue my degree at Cal State San Marcos."
After graduation Ainslie says that he will likely explore a "green collar" position in the region's growing hub of algae-based companies. According to the Algae Biomass Organization, the trade association for the U.S. algae industry, San Diego has the largest density of algae-based companies of any state.
"Our work under Dr. Sheath is important," reflected Stancheva. "This knowledge is important for managing local water resources and their protection for the good of society."
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