Algal populations, integral to healthy aquatic ecosystems, take a troubling turn under specific conditions – elevated temperatures and high nutrient concentrations being primary catalysts. This deviation triggers the rapid growth or “blooming” of algae, leading to the production of toxins. These toxins have far-reaching consequences in water bodies, affecting not only human health but also posing risks to animals, aquatic ecosystems, and the economy at large.

Algal blooms disrupt the delicate balance of nature as they proliferate, causing fish kills, habitat degradation, and altering the ecological dynamics of affected regions. According to environmental assessments, Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) have resulted in the closure of beaches and recreational areas, contributing to economic losses estimated at millions of dollars annually. Moreover, the toxins generated during HABs have been associated with various health issues, ranging from respiratory ailments to gastrointestinal illnesses. 

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are photosynthetic bacteria capable of harmful algal bloom formation. In 2014, the impact of a cyanobacterial HAB in Lake Erie reverberated, affecting the drinking water for more than 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio. Subsequently, in 2016, a massive HAB in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee had widespread consequences, negatively impacting tourism and aquatic life. Given the multifaceted challenges posed by HABs, the identification and control of these blooms have emerged as critical priorities for environmental management and public health protection. Timely detection of HABs is essential for implementing effective mitigation measures and safeguarding water quality. Through proactive monitoring and laboratory analysis, stakeholders can gain valuable insights into the presence of algal toxins, nutrient levels, and other parameters crucial for assessing the risk of HAB occurrence in water bodies.

In this blog post, we will explore the vital significance of laboratories in identifying and controlling HABs in water sources.

The Role of Laboratories in HAB Detection and Control

Laboratories serve as frontline defenders against the threats posed by HABs through their ability to identify harmful algal species and quantify associated toxins accurately.

With techniques such as microscopy, molecular analyses, and innovative sensors, laboratories can accurately identify algal species responsible for HABs and quantify the levels of associated toxins. Specifically, in the case of cyanobacterial HABs, methodologies like enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) enable precise detection of cyanotoxins, aiding in targeted management strategies.

Moreover, with regular monitoring and early detection, laboratories contribute significantly to the proactive management of HABs. Routine sampling and analysis allow for the identification of algal blooms at their onset, enabling timely intervention and mitigation measures. Early detection is crucial, particularly for cyanobacterial HABs, as certain toxins can rapidly contaminate water supplies, posing risks to ecosystems and public health. 

In addition to identification, labs play a crucial role in controlling HABs by analyzing water samples using advanced techniques to assess toxin levels and understand environmental factors. This knowledge contributes to the development of targeted control measures, including the selection of algaecides, optimization of water treatment protocols, and evaluation of intervention impacts. Furthermore, labs provide actionable insights to water treatment plants and policymakers, guiding tailored approaches and facilitating the formulation of regulations covering water quality standards, monitoring requirements, and preventive measures for a comprehensive governance framework addressing HAB challenges.

Lab Techniques for HAB Identification

Laboratory methods can not only pinpoint the presence of specific algae responsible for HABs but also quantify the levels of toxins, providing critical data for informed decision-making. Here, we look at three such methods:

  1. Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen (TKN) Method: TKN is a laboratory method designed to measure the collective content of organic nitrogen and inorganic nitrogen such as nitrate and nitrite in water samples, providing valuable insights into nutrient sources that can contribute to algal proliferation.

    In this method, the sample is first digested using concentrated sulfuric acid (H2SO4) along with a catalyst, typically copper sulfate (CuSO4), and a reducing agent like potassium sulfate (K2SO4). This digestion process converts organic nitrogen compounds into ammonium ions (NH4+). Next, the ammonia produced is distilled from the sample using a strong base, such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH), and collected in an acidic solution. Finally, the collected ammonia is titrated with a standardized acid solution, typically hydrochloric acid (HCl), to determine the nitrogen content of the sample.

    TKN analysis plays a crucial role in identifying nitrogen compounds derived from various sources, including wastewater and agricultural runoff. Its popularity lies in its effectiveness as an indicator of potential nutrient influxes that may stimulate algal growth. While nitrogen is traditionally considered secondary to phosphorus in stimulating algae growth, TKN’s significance has gained recognition in recent years, particularly in managing blue-green algae associated with HABs.

    Laboratories employ TKN analysis to gauge the presence of immediately digestible forms of nitrogen, offering insights into the potential risk of algal blooms. The TKN method is particularly useful for analyzing complex organic samples where nitrogen may exist in various forms, providing a comprehensive measure of total nitrogen content.

  2. Total Phosphorus (TP) Method: TP analysis is integral in assessing water quality, specifically focusing on the concentration of phosphorus in various chemical forms within a water body. As phosphorus sources become more widespread, stemming from urbanization and agricultural land development, understanding the impact of TP on nutrient enrichment and its role in stimulating algae growth is crucial.

    The Kjeldahl digestion method for TP mirrors the approach used for TKN, involving sulfuric acid and a sample to convert various phosphorus forms into orthophosphate. In the laboratory, the analysis progresses to react with a solution, forming phosphomolybdic acid. The resulting complex is proportional to the amount of phosphorus in the solution.

    Laboratories can choose from various methods for analyzing phosphorus in samples, including low-level phosphorus analysis and total phosphorus analysis via UV persulfate digestion. The choice of method depends on factors such as the nature of the sample, the required detection limits, the available equipment, and the laboratory’s standard operating procedures.

  3. Geosmin & MIB Method: Geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (MIB) are naturally occurring compounds produced by certain bacteria and algae, notably cyanobacteria, often associated with HABs. While these compounds themselves are non-toxic, they play a crucial role in causing taste and odor problems in water. Humans are highly sensitive to these compounds. When present in drinking water, geosmin and MIB can impart an earthy or musty smell, leading to aesthetic concerns among consumers.

    To identify and quantify geosmin and MIB, laboratories employ advanced techniques such as EPA Method 524.3. This method involves the extraction and analysis of these compounds using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). By leveraging the high sensitivity and selectivity of GC-MS, this method allows for the detection of geosmin and MIB at levels as low as one part per trillion, meeting the stringent drinking water regulations.

Why Water LIMS For Labs?

The logistics involved in water testing, especially when addressing the complexities of HABs, require great attention to detail. A technician’s task is not just about obtaining a water sample; it involves ensuring the right specimen container, accurate labeling of the container, accessioning samples, choosing and performing the right tests, and reporting accurate test results after validation. This is where a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) comes in. A water LIMS provides an integrated solution to streamline the entire process. It helps manage samples, generate sample labels containing unique barcodes, register samples and subject them to the right tests, streamline testing and quality control (QC) processes, validate test results, and report results to clients and regulatory authorities. Moreover, it offers flexibility by allowing laboratories to configure their software to meet specific needs, including managing standard operating procedures (SOPs), staff training, instrument calibration, documents, reporting requirements, and more. Furthermore, a LIMS supports integration with analytical instruments such as GC-MS and sensors, as well as with third-party software such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software and billing software.

The role of a water LIMS goes beyond just managing data; it serves as a centralized hub where all data, documents, and reports coexist seamlessly. This eliminates disconnected data silos that occur when you have multiple departments and use multiple instruments, sensors, and software for managing your lab operations. 

A water LIMS not only enhances the efficiency of laboratory operations but also contributes significantly to the accuracy and reliability of data crucial for monitoring and addressing HABs. 


Laboratories, armed with advanced techniques, are instrumental in protecting ecosystems against the threats posed by HABs and protecting public health. The timely detection and precise quantification of algal species and associated toxins provide invaluable insights for proactive management and mitigation measures. In addition to detection and identification, laboratories actively contribute to the development of control strategies. The integration of a water LIMS streamlines the processes involved in addressing HAB complexities. A water LIMS ensures accuracy, efficiency, and seamless management of data, from sample collection and analysis to reporting of test results, contributing to the overall reliability of information crucial for monitoring and addressing HABs. 

In the face of multifaceted challenges, laboratories and water LIMS systems together stand out as indispensable resources for safeguarding water quality.

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