Algae blooms can cause a host of problems, from mass-murdering fish to poisoning the air we breathe.
In Australia and beyond, some researchers believe that harmful blooms of blue-green algae are linked to increasingly high rates of motor neuron disease, a condition which causes paralysis and early death.
Folks in the US might be familiar with ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, which is the most common type of motor neuron disease.
Motor neuron diseases progressively attack nerve cells, reducing one's ability to speak, move, and breathe and typically killing patients within two to fours years after diagnosis, researchers told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Rates of deaths due to MND have risen 250 percent over the past 30 years in Australia, Macquarie University scientists told the Herald. MND sufferers and scientists are trying to understand why certain areas of the country have especially high rates, which led them to the algae theory. Certain areas of Australia have curiously high rates of MND. Riverina, an agricultural region of New South Wales, has between five and seven times the national incidence.
The region is home to Lake Wyangan, a reservoir that frequently has outbreaks of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. The area around the lake is currently on red alert, meaning people should avoid fishing and swimming in the potentially toxic water, as well as drinking it.
Cyanobacteria are known to release a number of toxins, including a neurotoxin called BMAA. Some animal research suggests that BMAA could be one of many factors that leads to the development of motor neuron deterioration.
Researchers have found BMAA in other algae-infested waterways in the Riverina area, but they haven't yet confirmed a link to MND. It's likely that the neurodegenerative disease stems from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Even in genetically predisposed cases of MND, environmental stressors like algae blooms could contribute to the disease's onset and progression, Dominic Rowe, chair of Macquarie Neurology, told the Herald. But more research is needed to better understand how those factors interact.
"Until we actually, systematically study the genetic causes and take them out of the environment, it's hard to be 100 percent accurate about the environmental factors," Rowe said.