samples in water research lab

New Jersey Phytoplankton Lab

The Phytoplankton Lab in the NJCWST studies the biodiversity of aquatic microorganisms and investigates the changing dynamics of cyanobacteria-dominated harmful algal blooms (CyanoHAB). Phytoplankton–photosynthetic microorganisms that drift throughout open waters–are incredibly diverse, and serve an invaluable ecological service by producing more than half of the world’s oxygen. The term “phytoplankton” may refer to dinoflagellates, diatoms, algae, and cyanobacteria.

While there is no single factor that triggers a harmful algal bloom event, conditions including pollution and increased nutrient influx can lead to the rapid growth of cyanobacteria; though cyanobacteria are a natural part of healthy ecosystems, this abnormally rapid growth is part of what constitutes a harmful algal bloom. These blooms are a major public health concern, due to the dangerous cyanobacterial toxins (cyanotoxins) they can produce, as well as an ecological concern; harmful blooms create deadly anoxic conditions for aquatic wildlife.

Cyanotoxins include neurotoxins, which affect the nervous system; hepatotoxins, which affect the liver; dermatoxins, which affect the skin; and other classes of toxins. Some of the most common toxins associated with human illnesses are microcystins, cylindrospermopsin, and anatoxins. Based on the current trend of global climate change, cyanobacteria-dominated CyanoHAB are expected to increase in both frequency, duration and magnitude resulting in declining water quality and ecological dysfunction.

Our current research topics include

  • Abundance and distribution of phytoplankton and cyanotoxins throughout New Jersey
  • Fate and transport of cyanobacteria and toxins in a riverine system
  • Research and development of ultrasonic technology for the management of cyanobacteria
  • Efficacy of drinking water treatment processes in removing cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins

Our capabilities include

  • Phytoplankton identification and enumeration using
    • Automatic counting with FlowCam®
    • Direct counting via hemacytometer, Sedgwick rafter, Palmer-Maloney chamber, Utermöhl, permanent dry mounts
  • Quantification of cyanotoxins: microcystins, anatoxin-a, cylindrospermopsins, saxitoxins and BMAA
  • Detection of toxin-producing genes using qPCR
  • Water quality parameters; see Water Analysis Laboratory


Yaritza Acosta Caraballo
Lab Manager,New Jersey Center for Water Science and Technology
Montclair State University
Center for Environmental and Life Sciences 100
Montclair, NJ 07043 USA