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Arnold School of Public Health

Jamie Lead partners with Mote Marine Labs to tackle harmful algal blooms using nanotechnology

February 23, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

Mote Marine Laboratory, a Florida-based non-profit organization aimed at protecting the ocean through research and education, has allocated nearly a quarter of a million dollars to support a new partnership with the Arnold School’s Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR). The collaboration, which is led by CENR director Jamie Lead and postdoctoral fellow Amjed Alabrem, along with Mote scientists and coordinators from BlackRock Water LLC, will explore the feasibility of using their patented nanotechnology approach to remove Karenia brevis cells and brevetoxin (also known as Red Tide) from estuarine and marine waters.

“Red tide is the name for a type of harmful algal bloom that has significant adverse human and environmental health impacts. The 2018 Red Tide Event caused many tens of millions of dollars in economic costs to tourism, real estate and other sectors in Floridian coastal areas,” Lead says. “Potential mitigation of these blooms is challenging, however, as it must ideally involve removal of both the K.brevis cells and the neurotoxin, brevetoxin, that this organism produces.”

Red tide can harm and kill fish, birds and marine animals and can wash ashore, creating health problems for humans (e.g., respiratory distress, burning of the eyes, coughing). It also creates a foul smell that drives away tourism and recreational use of coastal waters. According to the Florida Museum, red tide has cost millions in emergency funds to clean up beaches, lost revenue for vacation rentals, restaurants, and the shellfish aquaculture industry, and health care services for conditions such as respiratory and digestive illnesses.

"With ever-increasing urbanization pressures on our coastlines and a changing climate of wetter and warmer summers in the Southeastern U.S., harmful algal blooms will be more frequent and occur over larger areas – similar to what was seen in 2018," says Thomas Chandler, dean of the Arnold School and a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. "Professor Lead's use of magnetic nanoparticles to bind algal cells and absorb toxic chemicals is so innovative and has shown great promise already for oil spill clean up. I am proud that the Arnold School has a unique center like CENR addressing this challenge to public health." 

As with other complex, widespread clean-up efforts (e.g., oil spills) in large bodies of water, existing remediation methods are expensive, can create new problems such as introducing additional toxins, and fall short of returning the environment to its former state. Calls for new remediation technologies have led to field testing approaches such as pumping out large amounts of seawater, treating it to remove algae and its toxins, and then returning it to the ocean. Other methods propose leveraging naturally-produced compounds from seaweed, parasitic algae and filter-feeding organisms to battle harmful algal blooms.

While these approaches may show promise, many are in the infancy of their development and are often accompanied by their own negative side effects and shortcomings such as cost, scalability, and introduction of new pollutants. Lead’s solution, which he has been developing since he founded CENR and joined the Arnold School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences in 2012, overcomes these challenges.

Harnessing the power of nanoscience, CENR’s nanotechnology approach to environmental clean-up uses nanoparticles and magnets to remove unwanted substances – whether oil, algal blooms or other toxins – from water and soil. It works by allowing nanoparticles to bind to the K.brevis cells and/or brevetoxin. The whole mixture can then be removed magnetically, while the purified water can be discharged back to the environment.

The team has perfected this technique since they first unveiled it in 2015. Over the past five years, they have tested the approach in numerous contexts and conditions. Lead has published 15 peer-reviewed papers and authored three patents on the nanotechnology. He also founded the start-up company, GeoMat, to help commercialize this and other CENR research activities.

“Recent developments in nano-based remediation have shown that this platform works well under environmental conditions and is scalable and cost-effective; it does not require much energy and has minimal negative impacts on the environment,” Lead says. “The whole process has been designed to be practical and have the potential for commercialization to help clean up as many areas as possible – all while having a small environmental footprint.”


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