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Margaret Mulholland, assistant professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University, has been awarded a $500,000 grant to help determine the nutrient triggers causing deadly red tide blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

She and student researchers in her laboratory group are part of a multi-institutional research team that will get $4.7 million in funding over the next five years from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The grant will be administered by the Wildlife Research Institute of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Red tides are caused by discoloration of the water due to the excessive growth of certain algae, many of which are toxic. In addition to toxic effects, excessive algal production can result in formation of low oxygen zones-such as in the Chesapeake Bay-as algae sink and are degraded.

The research team will investigate causal factors promoting red tide blooms on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where red tides are common, their causes are poorly understood and their consequences are deadly.

Red tide blooms of toxin-producing algae cause extensive fish kills, shellfish contamination, and human health impacts in coastal waters worldwide. However, the factors causing these blooms have remained elusive. Because harmful algal blooms may have common causes and are increasing globally, the research will have far-reaching impacts.

Mulholland and her lab group at ODU will investigate the dominant sources of nutrients fueling red tide blooms and evaluate the preferences of the Florida red tide organism (Karenia brevis) for specific forms of nutrients. The ODU researchers will participate in at least four research cruises in the Gulf of Mexico as part of this project.

Some scientists and conservation groups in Florida are convinced that nutrients from farms, waterfront housing developments and heavy industries are causing the red tides. But other scientists say that nutrient runoff does not cause the toxic algal blooms, and research results to date are inconclusive. The assembled research team will investigate how and whether the nutrient enrichment contributes to the initiation, duration and magnitude of red tide blooms.

Other researchers involved in the grant are from the University of Miami, Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Fla., the University of South Florida, the University of Maryland and Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Mulholland was elected this past summer to membership on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). She will employ her expertise on nutrient enrichment and algae blooms and other aspects of biological oceanography on behalf of the CBP, which is a joint program involving the states of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

An ODU faculty member since 2000, Mulholland was granted a doctorate in biological oceanography by the University of Maryland in 1998. Her research focus involves various aspects of carbon and nitrogen cycling in aquatic systems.

This article was posted on: October 23, 2006

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