Algae: A Love Story

Robin Matthews, director of Western Washington University’s Institute for Watershed Studies, loves algae; she gets giddy even talking about it – even the types so toxic they can kill you.

“I just think they are the most fascinating little creatures,” she said. “Having researched them for most of my career, I can honestly say they have never stopped throwing me curves and taking my inquiries in new directions – which is great.”

Algae, Matthews readily admits, is an incredibly broad term that encompasses many species that most people don’t associate with the layers of goo that coat their ponds in the summer.

“Most people assume algae are all green plants, but they’re not,” she said. “They need to contain chlorophyll to  be called algae, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are similar to terrestrial plants.”

For example, she said the dinoflagellate protists that cause toxic red tides and paralytic shellfish poisoning aren’t plants, although they look and act like what most folks think of as algae. And neither are the group commonly called the blue/green algae, which Matthews is currently devoting most of her research time to studying.

Blue/greens aren’t plants or animals; they are cyanobacteria, the only phylum of bacteria that obtains its energy through photosynthesis, and in high levels they can be particularly dangerous to humans and pets.

“Freshwater blue/greens are common throughout North America,” Matthews said. “But  most blue/greens aren’t dangerous.”

When enough days of warm, calm weather happen in many of our regional lakes, certain types blue/greens can bloom in numbers that produce dangerous toxins like microcystin,  which has been linked to liver damage and possible liver and colorectal cancers; although, she stresses that just because a bloom has occurred doesn’t mean that it’s toxic.

“We have had some pretty big blooms at Lake Padden in Bellingham, for example, that looked bad but weren’t actually toxic. You simply can’t tell just be looking at the lake or the algae if there are dangerous levels of toxins present.” she said. “On the other hand, Toad and Wiser lakes here in Whatcom County have had really nasty toxic blooms that have produced microcystin levels that exceeded guidelines .”

This reality has led Matthews to partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a citizen-science project called Cyanoscope ( /cyanoscope/).

“One of the issues is that, while many people know that algae can be harmful, they don’t realize that the vast majority of algae are not harmful at all.” she said.

Cyanoscope is aimed at helping citizen scientists learn how to recognize potentially toxic algae blooms, which would states be more effective in targeting which lakes to test for toxins.

“It’s such a neat project,” she said. “These folks get full kits, from plankton nets to microscopes to digital thermometers, to go get their samples, take pictures of them, and send them in,” she said. “And that’s where I come in.”

Matthews is part of a team of scientists who are volunteering to do the bulk of the identification work on the samples that get sent in, and she loves being a part of it.

“It’s identifying a ton of cool new blue/greens – what’s not to like?” she said.

Most of the Cyanoscope project areas are in New England and in the Midwest, but she thinks it could be expanding to this area at some point – and in the meantime, the State of Washington maintains a good site full of regional toxic algae data and info, at

“Toxic blue/greens aren’t actually that hard to identify, so what I’m really focusing on are ways to help people know and understand what they are looking at,” she said.

For more information on Cyanoscope or Matthews’ research on toxic blue/green algaes, contact her at

Robin Matthews samples algae from Anderson Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.