Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Steven Wilhelm

Committee Members

Alison Buchan, Erik Zinser, Mark Radosevich


The Laurentian Great Lake, Lake Erie is an invaluable global resource and its watershed is home to over 11 million people. The pressures placed on the lake because of this high population caused Lake Erie to experience numerous environmental problems, including seasonal hypoxia and harmful algal blooms. While these topics have been widely studied in Lake Erie for over 40 years a more nuanced understanding of the interaction between phytoplankton and nutrient is needed to properly address the problems continuing to face the lake. In this study we combine classical limnological and cell growth experiments with modern molecular biological techniques and microscopy to more completely describe the aquatic microbial ecology of the lake. We used an oxalate rinse technique to examine the surface absorbed P pool of the toxic cyanobacterium Microcystis aeruginosa grown under a range of P conditions, as well as the general Lake Erie plankton assemblage. Our results suggest that while Microcystis is plastic in its cellular P needs, the ratio of intracellular to extracellular P remains stable across growth conditions. We describe the effect of the phosphonate herbicide glyphosate on the Lake Erie phytoplankton community using laboratory cell growth studies, field microcosm experiments and PCR amplification of a gene implicated in the breakdown of this compound from the environment. Results from these experiments suggest that the presence of glyphosate can affect community structure in multiple ways and may explain areas of unexplained phytoplankton diversity in coastal areas of Lake Erie. We also show heterotrophic bacteria are likely critical to the breakdown of glyphosate and further illustrate that understanding the context of the larger microbial community is critical to understanding the ecology of the constituent members of the community. Finally, we investigate the activity of the phytoplankton community in winter months with a focus on diatoms abundant in Lake Erie under the ice. We show these diatoms are active and that the winter bloom is a likely source of carbon important to seasonal hypoxia formation. Together, these studies significantly enrich our understanding of how phytoplankton influence important ecological processes in Lake Erie.

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