Microalgae in UK coastal waters

Within UK coastal waters there are a number of microalgal species that are deemed harmful. This is mainly due to the fact that they produce chemical compounds that are toxic and can accumulate in the tissue of shellfish that feed on them. If these shellfish are eaten by us we may develop syndromes such as Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning PSP, Diarrhoeic Shellfish Poisoning and Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning ASP. Dinoflagellate species are among those described as harmful.

The dinoflagellate Alexandrium ostenfeldiiseen under a light microscope (A) and a scanning electron microscope image of Prorocentrum lima (B), both isolated from the Fal Estuary, UK.

Fig. A

Dinoflagellate alexandrium ostenfeldiiseen under a microscope

Fig. B


It is important to understand the location of these species around the UK coastline to highlight potential regions of toxicity and contribute to risk assessment processes.  The research in our group has focused largely on the dinoflagellate genus Alexandrium, of which a range of species have now been identified in the UK, some of which contain the neurotoxin saxitoxin and/or its derivatives. Our work not only looks at the ecology and distribution of this genus, but also novel molecular detection methods for these cells and other harmful algal species.

The majority of marine algae are not harmful, their natural ability to acquire carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis makes them important potential feedstocks for biofuels.  We have a developing interest in the use of marine microalgae for this purpose and in novel compounds produced by these species.

Sampling sediment on the UK coast using a Japanese sediment corer (A) and a hand corer (B) for collection of material for analysis of dinoflagellate cysts.

Fig. A

Sampling sediment using a Japanese sediment corer

Fig. B

Collection of material for analysis of dinoflagellate cysts

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The Westminster Water Science Research Group was established to promote dynamic and proactive scientific study of water resources.