Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic bacteria of ancient date in the geological record. It is believed that cyanobacteria played a major role in generating the oxygen atmosphere of the earth.

Found in habitats ranging from the hot pools of Yellowstone to the deserts of the middle east to the middle of the oceans, cyanobacteria are nearly ubiquitous on the earth’s surface.

Once known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria produce blooms – large floating masses- in warm, low water reservoirs- and in the world’s oceans. Some blooms in the oceans are thousands of kilometers long.

Nostoc isolated from Cycad micronesica root

Nostoc isolated from Cycad micronesica root

Some species of cyanobacteria are symbiotic, meaning that they live inside of other organisms. Our research has focused on cyanobacteria that live inside of specialized roots of cycad plants. These symbiotic cyanobacteria fix nitrogen, and may aid in the nitrogen metabolism of the plant. We have also discovered that they produce the neurotoxin BMAA. The toxins these cyanobacteria produce may function to deter insects or grazing animals.

Our research has led to the discovery that BMAA is produced by most cyanobacterial species and that the conditions under which they grow are critical for BMAA production. While cyanobacteria produce BMAA, the toxin can also biomagnify up the food chain and result in higher concentrations within filter-feeding or bottom-feeding invertebrates that live beneath cyanobacterial blooms.