Water

Phytoplankton Analysis: What is it? What does it take?

The market in environmental analysis is huge, and set to get bigger, with our water resources needing increasing management to support future sustainability. 


When you hear the term environmental analysis, it probably conjures up images of white-coated scientists, sitting at scientific instruments, streaking various growth media, or swirling beakers.  And you wouldn’t be far off the mark, we do all those things.  But there’s one analysis you probably don’t know much about, and may not know even exists.  Phytoplankton analysis (algae and cyanobacteria).  You may have seen warning signs at your favourite lake during summer, warning of the presence of cyanobacteria in the water?  I urge you to please heed these warnings, cyanobacteria can pose a serious threat to your health, and these little beasts cost your water supplier a fortune every year in management and treatment, ensuring it is safe for consumption.  Enter the phycologist.

Dolichospermum circinale

When I tell someone I count algae, they usually picture someone counting dots down the microscope.  However, what we do in reality is very complex and takes many months to become proficient, just to get the basics right.  As an analyst of over 15 years’ experience, I can reliably identify approximately 120 algae to order and genus, and about 40 of those to species level.  I can tell you if potentially toxic species are present, arrange the correct toxin analysis, issue advice for future sampling and management, and interpret what is likely to occur in the water body over the following weeks.  It requires patience, spacial awareness, an incredible eye for detail and a most importantly, a suitable temperament.  Not everyone can do the work for many reasons; getting vertigo when looking down the microscope, not understanding the concepts presented, or just not liking it.  If you have someone with a dislike for the work for instance, they will never get to the level they should, and forcing them to continue with the training will make them worse, not better.  Don’t waste your resources.

The microscope is the tool we use, but the analyst is the instrument, and keeping that instrument in top form takes some doing, even when you have the right people.  On top of that, when you have more than one analyst, you need to ensure they are maintaining their consistency and accuracy over time, and in comparison with the other analysts.  So, no matter which analyst counts a sample, the results should be within an acceptable margin of error.  This takes time and considerable effort with quality assurance and proficiency testing.  Unlike most scientific tests, phycology is subjective, it needs consistency to build an accurate picture over time.  This is trend analysis.  There is no formal validation, as there is no known value to work with, ever.  Just what you see at the time.  So getting everyone seeing the same thing, is somewhat of a challenge.

Chrysosporum ovalisporum

The current issues facing this science are varied.  Phycologists are highly specialised in their field, and considerable investment is needed to bring them to, and maintain an acceptable level of skill.  There are simply not enough of us out there to keep up with demand, as it’s a skill-set that is gained on-the-job.  Government or research facilities may have the expertise but may not provide training on a commercial basis.  And in my experience, not many private labs have the ability or willingness to train potential competitors either.

The work is seasonal.  If you need several analysts during the summer months when the algae is blooming, what do you do with them during winter when the workload is light?  You can cross-train them, but cannot rely on their availability in those areas during summer.  This often leads labs to have not enough phycology staff to manage the workflow, leading to poor quality results, long turnaround times and extremely dis-engaged and disgruntled staff.  And in all honesty, they may as well not be doing it at all, for all the use the results are to the client.  As a cautionary tale: In summer, a phycologist in full seasonal counting mode, can be a sensitive beast.  Imagine a primitive being, walking slumped over, dragging its knuckles on the ground, with its eyes hanging out of the sockets by the optic nerve.  If faced with such a beast, the best tactic is to avoid eye contact, back away slowly, and at all cost, avoid sudden moves.  From my many years experience of seven hours per day at the microscope, that’s exactly what it feels like.  It is horrendously physically and mentally taxing.  This level of fatigue requires significant management to prevent your analysts from staging a mass revolt.  But those of us that do it, love it…most of the time.  It’s a very satisfying science and there is always something new to see and learn and after so long, I still enjoy it.

So what does the future hold?  More algae.  During droughts and warmer weather is when algae, and particularly cyanobacteria bloom in our waterways.  Still or stagnant water, high in nutrients are the ideal set of conditions for blooms.  As climate change takes hold, many regions may experience these conditions more frequently, as a result of reduced rainfall and higher temperatures.  There are other parameters that are tested that provide valuable information such as, chlorophyll a, biological oxygen demand (BOD), pH, and nutrients.  But, without the invention of software that can classify, speciate, measure, count, and interpret the dynamics of the water over time, there will always be a need for phycologists.  If you are endeavouring to branch into this analysis in your lab, from my 10+ years’ of training phycologists, I advise the following;

  • Pick the right people.
  • Train them properly and support their development.
  • Give them the right equipment and surroundings.
  • Gain an understanding of how best to manage these specialists.
  • If you don’t know who to train, where to start or what to do, call someone that does.
  • If you aren’t willing to do any and all of these, don’t do it at all.