Bacteria, Eelgrass, and Harmful Algal Blooms: Understanding the Relationship

by Katie Harrington, Lab Assistant, FHL Seagrass Lab

Katie first joined FHL as a student in Autumn 2013, when she studied Reading & Writing the Marine Environment, took a Creative Writing Lab, and deepened her scientific background with a course in Marine Biology and a Marine Environmental Research Experience. Katie writes with the goal of exciting public interest in local research and conservation efforts. As a Stanford grad, she's since returned to San Francisco where she's connecting with the Bay Area science scene and continues to work remotely as a Lab Assistant in the Seagrass Lab at FHL.

Fig. 1: L to R, part of the team studying eelgrass bacteria and HABs: Marco Hatch (Samish), Aissa Yazzie (Navajo), Skye Augustine (Stz’uminus), Rosa Hunter (Jamestown Klallam) and Nobuharu Inaba (Hokkaido University) after their first day of spring sampling. Photo credit: Marco Hatch.

Misunderstood Microbes: In a culture seemingly gripped by an antibacterial fervor, where the very mention of a microbe might bring a handshake to a grinding halt, perhaps we should think again about the zeitgeist that vilifies these microorganisms. Globally, pockets of researchers, engineers, and design firms continue to prove that some bacteria might just be the heroes of our time.

Researchers have identified bacteria that create energy and others that fight threats both to human health and the environment. Bacteria are now used to turn food scraps and dairy industry byproducts into biofuel, to remove heavy metals from acid mining drainage, and to clean oil spills. Bacteria have been proposed as a solution to desertification in the African Sahara, and explored for treating cancer (Sagar et al. 2013) and fighting anthrax (Jang et al. 2013). Strains that can breakdown plastic have even been found in Canada’s Fraser River.

Friday Harbor Labs won’t be left out of the buzz. Dr. Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria has partnered with a group of researchers to study bacteria associated with the eelgrass Zostera marina that could stomp out harmful algal blooms (HABs). Funded by a National Institute for Food and Agriculture Tribal Colleges Research Grants Program award to Northwest Indian College, the team includes Dr. Wyllie-Echeverria, Dr. Marco Hatch and Skye Augustine from Northwest Indian College, Dr. Vera Trainer, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Professor Ichiro Imai and his PhD student Nobuharu Inaba, Hokkaido University, Japan, and Dr. Tom Schultz, Washington State University San Juan County Extension (Figure 1). Travel for the Japanese scientists to FHL for this project was supported by the Edward Sylvester Morse Institute program, for exchanges between FHL and Japanese marine labs. You may make a gift to the program here.

Fig. 2: L to R, researchers from Hokkaido University (Nobuharu Inaba, Yuka Onishi, and Ichiro Imai) prepare to go sampling with Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria, FHL. Photo credit: Vera Trainer.

HABs cost the U.S. at least $82 million per year according to NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (Hoagland and Scatasta, 2006). The toxins they produce cause neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, kill fish, and contaminate drinking water. Blooms also block sunlight from organisms that need the light to live, such as eelgrass. Interestingly, eelgrass threatened by the blooms could also be the solution to fighting them. In 2012, Hokkaido University researchers found bacteria that kill these harmful algae living in Zostera marina meadows in the Salish Sea (Figure 2).

The benefits of identifying algicidal bacteria in the Salish Sea go far beyond finding a homegrown mitigation tool for a growing problem. Raising awareness of the native species that provides substrate for the bacteria could also positively influence much-needed conservation efforts for the species. Native seagrass has been badly affected by shoreline developments like docks, sea walls, and piers. Meadows are scarred by boat anchors, dredging, and storm water. Human activities contribute to the decline of eelgrass meadows in some regions of the Salish Sea, which could be bad news for the fight against HABs.

This spring the team is sampling bacteria from two eelgrass meadows: a larger one in Padilla Bay and a smaller one in Drayton Harbor that experiences more frequent HABs (Figure 3). The researchers want to know if more eelgrass correlates with fewer HABs.

Fig. 3: Kenichiro Ishii (Kyoto University, left) and Nobuharu Inaba (Hokkaido University, right) collect samples in the field. Inaba and Ishii are junior fellows of the E.S. Morse Institute, an initiative which supports the exchange of scholars between Japan marine laboratories and the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories. With the Institute's support, they were able to visit FHL in 2012, 2013, and will again in 2014 to further the research on HABs and their relationship with seagrass. Photo credit: Nobuharu Inaba.

To do this, they’re collecting seawater and eelgrass samples from both sites and isolating the associated bacteria in Northwest Indian College’s new Salish Sea Research Center. Then the bacteria are added to cultures of two harmful algal species in the Salish Sea, Alexandrium catenella and Heterosigma akashiwo, acquired from a culture collection at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. For two weeks, they monitor the algae for changes in density, using microscopes to see if the bacteria kill the algae or inhibit cell growth.

Opening the Door for Learning: The project is about more than algicidal bacteria. It brings together a multinational and multicultural research team with goals of providing scientific literacy and experiential learning opportunities for American Indian students. It’s also about public outreach, empowering a community with the knowledge of local solutions to potential health and economic problems.

“We hope to help the community better understand their local natural resources, including the cultural and environmental value of species native to the Salish Sea,” says Dr. Wyllie-Echeverria. “Eelgrass presence has a long history in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s important to show how the conservation and restoration of this species could help the Salish Sea naturally fight back.”

Restoring this species in the ecosystem could restore the balance. Stay tuned for results from the project this fall.

Citizens Get Involved! Citizens along the coast are chipping in valuable information to this research project through SoundToxins, a monitoring program in Puget Sound jointly managed by NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington State Sea Grant.

Participants including environmental learning centers, Tribal governments, shellfish growers, and private citizens collect weekly water samples and observe them under a microscope to look for harmful algal species. These data are uploaded to a website that helps the Washington State Department of Health decide where to collect additional samples for toxin testing. Through SoundToxins, citizens have recorded toxins that have led to new closures – and safer coastlines – in Puget Sound.

The SoundToxins partnership will help the research team locate areas for collecting new cultures of HAB species for their study. Visit to learn more.


Sagar S., Esau L., Holtermann K., Hikmawan T., Zhang G., Stingl U., Bajic V.B., and M. Kaur. 2013. Induction of Apoptosis in Cancer Cell Lines by the Red Sea Brine Pool Bacterial Extracts. BMC Complement Altern Med: 13 / 344.

Jang K.H., Nam S.J., Locke J.B., Kauffman C.A., Beatty D.S., Paul L. A., and W. Fenical. 2013. Anthracimycin, a Potent Anthrax Antibiotic from a Marine-Derived Actinomycete. Angew Chem Int Ed: 52 (7822–7824). doi: 10.1002/anie.201302749.

Hoagland P., and S. Scatasta. 2006. The Economic Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms. In E Graneli and J Turner, eds., Ecology of Harmful Algae Ecology Studies Series. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer-Verlag, Chap 29.

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