Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Biology and BioMed Central.

Journal App

google play app store
Open Access Open Badges Research article

Stability of toxin gene proportion in red-pigmented populations of the cyanobacterium Planktothrix during 29 years of re-oligotrophication of Lake Zürich

Veronika Ostermaier1, Ferdinand Schanz2, Oliver Köster3 and Rainer Kurmayer1*

Author affiliations

1 University of Innsbruck, Research Institute for Limnology, Mondseestrasse 9, 5310 Mondsee, Austria

2 Limnological Station, Institute of Plant Biology, University of Zürich, Seestrasse 187, CH-8802 Kilchberg, Switzerland

3 Zürich Water Supply, Hardhof 9, 8021 Zürich, Switzerland

For all author emails, please log on.

Citation and License

BMC Biology 2012, 10:100  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-10-100

Published: 7 December 2012



Harmful algal blooms deteriorate the services of aquatic ecosystems. They are often formed by cyanobacteria composed of genotypes able to produce a certain toxin, for example, the hepatotoxin microcystin (MC), but also of nontoxic genotypes that either carry mutations in the genes encoding toxin synthesis or that lost those genes during evolution. In general, cyanobacterial blooms are favored by eutrophication. Very little is known about the stability of the toxic/nontoxic genotype composition during trophic change.


Archived samples of preserved phytoplankton on filters from aquatic ecosystems that underwent changes in the trophic state provide a so far unrealized possibility to analyze the response of toxic/nontoxic genotype composition to the environment. During a period of 29 years of re-oligotrophication of the deep, physically stratified Lake Zürich (1980 to 2008), the population of the stratifying cyanobacterium Planktothrix was at a minimum during the most eutrophic years (1980 to 1984), but increased and dominated the phytoplankton during the past two decades. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction revealed that during the whole observation period the proportion of the toxic genotype was strikingly stable, that is, close to 100%. Inactive MC genotypes carrying mutations within the MC synthesis genes never became abundant. Unexpectedly, a nontoxic genotype, which lost its MC genes during evolution, and which could be shown to be dominant under eutrophic conditions in shallow polymictic lakes, also co-occurred in Lake Zürich but was never abundant. As it is most likely that this nontoxic genotype contains relatively weak gas vesicles unable to withstand the high water pressure in deep lakes, it is concluded that regular deep mixing selectively reduced its abundance through the destruction of gas vesicles.


The stability in toxic genotype dominance gives evidence for the adaptation to deep mixing of a genotype that retained the MC gene cluster during evolution. Such a long-term dominance of a toxic genotype draws attention to the need to integrate phylogenetics into ecological research as well as ecosystem management.

allelic discrimination assay; eutrophication; genetic population structure; harmful algal blooms; historic samples; long-term monitoring; microcystin