Some are so small, you can fit 60,000 on a single pinhead.
Algae—what most people know to be pond scum, seaweed or kelp—are mostly invisible to the naked eye, yet supercritical for human existence, producing about half of all oxygen on Earth.
“The invisible world of algae—few people have seen it,” said Aquatic Ecologist and Biology Professor Dr. Kalina Manoylov. “People tend to avoid algae, because they don’t understand them. Out of sight. Out of mind. But every second breath you take is because of algae.”
This diverse, plant-like organism is also important in gauging the health of entire water systems. That’s where Manoylov and her students enter the picture.
On sample-gathering days throughout the year, you can find them scooping and scraping microscopic algae into vials and baggies. Specimens are taken back to the phycology lab in Herty Hall for examination.
Manoylov’s undergraduate and graduate students collect data in a variety of locations statewide. Locally at Oconee River, they study algae to determine effects of a nearby wastewater treatment plant. Two other sites—the estuaries of Port Wentworth, Georgia, and Three Runs Creek, a biodiverse blackwater stream on the border of South Carolina—help researchers understand effects of dredging in the Savannah River.
“Algae are 3.5 billion years old,” Manoylov said. “They turned this planet from a carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere to an oxygen-rich atmosphere. They are the perfect way to measure changes in the river.”
“Humans have altered everything,” she said. “Eventually, you will see different organisms and fish in the river. We’re constantly doing something to the environment, and the environment is responding. My job is to document what’s happening.”
Manoylov has monitored changes in algal communities in the Savannah River since 2011, before the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers began dredging and widening four years later. Two graduate students—Katherine Johnson of Atlanta and Blia Lor, a native of Laos living in Milledgeville—currently help note fluctuations in algae populations.
What they’re seeing concerns them.
More saltwater and sediment are moving into river areas that used to be freshwater. Sediment—set loose by dredging—is constantly moving with tides and the river’s back-and-forth motion. The mixing prevents sunlight from penetrating water and reaching algae. This, in turn, affects insects and small fish that feed off algae and eventually larger creatures along the food chain.
In normal conditions, algae offsets the effect of moving sediment. But dredging is causing some types—native to the environment—to die off.
“A change in the algae community will change everything that’s happening in the area,” Manoylov said. “When the system’s violated, one algae takes over and wins. That signals there’s already destruction in the system.”
One type of algae, the oil-filled diatom, is a preferred food for insects and small fish. Some live on the surface of water in plankton, attached to plants or along the bottom. Manoylov’s team is finding less plankton from the ocean. Moving sediment prevents it from getting enough sunlight to grow.
“We are changing the ecosystem in a way we cannot predict what the outcome will be,” she said. “We’ll see what will happen. At this point, what we’re finding is a complete change in the community of algae. And if the algae are changing, then fish and everything else will change.”
Lor and Johnson said their work with Manoylov is important, because many counties receive drinking water from the Savannah River. They’re thankful to be exposed to research techniques on an organism so vital to the future of water quality.
Students also marvel at the variety and beauty of algae—up to a million species in all sizes, colors and shapes.
“There’s something I cannot explain about the curiosity and fascination that overcomes me, when I’m looking through the microscope at all the beautiful algae in just one drop of water,” Johnson said. “It’s like experiencing a different world. Each time I get to visit it, I’m in awe.”
Another important water study involving algae is at the Oconee River Greenway in Milledgeville. This project is interdisciplinary, involving Manoylov’s lab students and Dr. Samuel Mutiti’s hydrology class. Data’s being collected for a proposal this spring for funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), called “Clean Water of Baldwin County.”
Manoylov and Mutiti are working collaboratively with Dr. Karen Berman, artistic chair of theatre and dance, whose students two years ago produced an environmental play, and marketing professor Dr. Doreen Sams. The group will use EPA funds to create a public education outreach plan on water quality.
“We all need to drink water,” Manoylov said. “Water has to be clean—not only for humans but for all aquatic organisms, including algae.”
“What happens here influences the Altamaha and coastal area,” she said. “It’s all connected. So, we’re monitoring locally to make sure the region has clean surface water.”
Students have tested the Oconee River since 2010. Almost weekly, you can find Mutiti and about 20 hydrology students swarming the riverbanks. They monitor depth and flow of the water and study effects of wastewater on wetlands, which act as filters for pollutants.
Samples are collected along five river sites, starting below Sinclair Dam. The Greenway is another site. Areas are tested above and below emissions from the wastewater treatment plant—where researchers look for the presence of chlorine, used for cleaning wastewater. Chlorine can break membranes and kill algae.
In addition to identifying algal species and their abundance—students measure river temperature, electrical currents and nutrients from agricultural sources and lawn runoff like nitrogen and phosphates.
Senior environmental science major Morgan Rasmussen of Marietta has worked with Manoylov and Mutiti. Recently, she used a toothbrush to scrape microscopic algae off damp rocks along the riverbank.
“Field work is great,” she said, “because you get to be outside and experience all the qualities of a study area. Lab work’s interesting too. You get to use different techniques and tools to analyze what’s actually going on in the environment.”
“At Georgia College, you get to do stuff that people with graduate-level degrees and big-title occupations are doing,” she said. “You can watch a PowerPoint or take notes, but it’s not like actually doing it yourself.”