A team of marine scientists has found that toxin-producing algae once thought to be limited to coastal waters are also common in the open ocean, where the addition of iron from natural or artificial sources can stimulate rapid growth of the harmful algae. The new findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, add to concerns about proposals to use iron fertilization of the oceans as a way to combat global warming. Blooms of diatoms in the genus Pseudo-nitschia, which produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid, are a regular occurrence in coastal waters. During large blooms, the algal toxin enters the food chain, forcing the closure of some fisheries (such as shellfish and sardines) and poisoning marine mammals and birds that feed on contaminated fish. But until now, blooms of these algae in the open ocean have attracted little attention from researchers.

“Normally, Pseudo-nitschia cells are sparse in the open ocean, so they don’t have much effect. But these species are incredibly responsive to iron, often becoming dominant in algal blooms that result from iron fertilization. Any iron input might cause a bloom of the cells that make the toxin,” said Mary Silver, professor emerita of ocean sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author of the new study.

Because both natural and artificial additions of iron to ocean waters cause phytoplankton (single-celled algae) to grow vigorously, and because phytoplankton take up carbon dioxide as they grow, iron fertilization of the oceans has been suggested as way to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and thereby combat global warming.

“This work definitely reveals a wrinkle in those plans,” said coauthor Kenneth Coale, director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. “It is much easier to break an ecosystem than it is to fix one. In light of these findings, we should redouble our efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the primary culprit for ocean ecosystem damage worldwide.”