Skip Navigation

OU Researchers Discover Genetic Collaboration in Harmful Algae

Dave Hambright.

OU Researchers Discover Genetic Collaboration in Harmful Algae

Findings offer insights into future research to prevent harmful algal blooms.



June 18, 2024

Media Contact

Josh DeLozier
(405) 325-1502

NORMAN, OKLA. – A breakthrough study of freshwater harmful algal communities led by Dave Hambright, a Regents’ Professor of Biology at the University of Oklahoma, has discovered that complementary genes in bacteria and algae living in the same algal colonies coordinate the use and movement of nutrients within the colony. This research, funded by the National Science Foundation, has been published in the journal Microbiome.

Cyanobacteria are often called blue-green algae because they use photosynthesis for energy and can form a bluish-green film on the water’s surface when they are abundant. This frequently happens in waters receiving agricultural runoff, fertilizers and urban wastewater. While naturally present in most lakes, many cyanobacteria can become problematic when they are abundant – that is, when they bloom – because they produce toxins that are harmful to wildlife, aquatic environments and human health.

Algal bloom.
Algal bloom on Castle Rock pond


“These algal blooms are fueled by nutrient pollution,” Hambright said. “Oklahoma is particularly prone to these harmful algal blooms because our lakes are reservoirs with watersheds that can be hundreds of time times larger than the lake it feeds. Compared to a watershed of a natural lake, like those common in the northern United States with a watershed that is often less than 10 times larger than a lake, the likelihood for nutrient pollution in Oklahoma dramatically increases.”

During their research, Hambright’s team discovered that aerobic anoxygenic phototrophic, or AAP, bacteria were significantly more abundant in cyanobacterial colonies than in the surrounding waters. For years, researchers have hypothesized that there must be a mutually beneficial reason for this cohabitation.

“We know that AAP bacteria need a source of food. The gelatinous matrix of the colony in which the AAP bacteria live provides that food source,” he said. “This research is the first time that we’ve shown distinct, complementary functions between AAP bacteria and cyanobacteria critical to the algal bloom’s existence.”

Hambright’s team studied the genes of the microbiome, or the bacteria that live with the cyanobacteria, from lakes around the world. They examined the genes that use and move sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus and found that complete metabolic pathways were coded by a combination of some genes in the algae with other genes in the microbiome bacteria.

“No matter what lake the cyanobacterial sample came from, whether from the United States, Europe, New Zealand or China, these ‘helper’ bacteria were doing the same processes for the cyanobacteria,” he said. “This unique discovery suggests that algae and bacteria living in these colonies have a complementary set of genes that allow colony members to coordinate the metabolic processes involved in nutrient cycling within the colony. Our working hypothesis is that the genes present in a particular cyanobacterium determine what the bacteria living in its colony provides.”

According to Hambright, more research is needed to confirm these findings. Researchers also need to determine if the cyanobacteria require cooperation from the bacteria living with them.

“If validated, perhaps we could find ways to break that collaboration so that the algae don’t thrive and bloom, thus giving other non-harmful algae a chance to compete for nutrients. This would help balance the food web and improve the habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms. It would also lead to better water quality and, thus, a lower treatment cost for drinking water in our state,” he said.

Learn more about Hambright's Plankton Ecology and Limnology Laboratory at the University of Oklahoma and read about his previously published research on harmful algal blooms.

Chris McLimans uses a pipette in Dr. Hambright's lab.
Doctoral student Chris McLimans uses a pipette in Dr. Hambright's lab.

About the project

This research, “Aerobic anoxygenic phototrophs play important roles in nutrient cycling within cyanobacterial Microcystis bloom microbiomes,” was supported by US National Science Foundation grant DEB-1831061, National Key Research and Development Program of China grant 2018YFA0903000 and Natural Science Foundation of Jiangsu Province of China grant BK20191508. Dave Hambright is a Regents’ Professor of Biology in the OU School of Biological Sciences, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences. He is also a member of OU’s Geographical Ecology Group and represents OU in a worldwide consortium of nearly 900 researchers from 62 countries in the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network. Research support was also provided by doctoral student Chris McLimans, postdoctoral researcher Haiyuan Cai and emeritus professor of microbiology Lee Krumholz.

About the University of Oklahoma

Founded in 1890, the University of Oklahoma is a public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma. As the state’s flagship university, OU serves the educational, cultural, economic and health care needs of the state, region and nation. OU was named the state’s highest-ranking university in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent Best Colleges list. For more information about the university, visit

Recent News

Campus & Community
July 12, 2024

OU Hudson College of Public Health Earns Reaccreditation

The Hudson College of Public Health on the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences campus has earned reaccreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health.

July 11, 2024

$5 Million Grant to OU Continues Work of Oklahoma Dementia Care Network

The University of Oklahoma is expanding the efforts of the Oklahoma Dementia Care Network. The program aims to improve health outcomes for people living with dementia and their caregivers through statewide geriatric workforce development.

July 10, 2024

Engineering Professor Receives Prestigious Junior Faculty Award for Nitrate Conversion Research

Kasun Gunasooriya, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Oklahoma School of Sustainable Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, has received a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement award from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities. He was selected for his research on converting nitrate captured during the water purification process into ammonia, reducing water pollutants while generating an important fertilizer for global agriculture.