Scientists have discovered a previously unknown toxin that lurks deep in the Fitzroy River. It has no smell, can’t be seen except with a microscope and is poisonous to mammals.
Scientists have discovered a previously unknown toxin that lurks deep in the Fitzroy River. It has no smell, can’t be seen except with a microscope and is poisonous to mammals. Allan Reinikka

Scientists find toxic bacteria

A MYSTERY toxic bacteria, never before identified anywhere in the world, has been discovered in the Fitzroy River.

It can’t be seen, it has no smell and can lurk metres beneath the surface.

But scientists at CQUniversity who detected the bacteria know it is poisonous to mammals and say further research is essential to assess its impact in freshwater ecosystems and the risk it might pose to drinking water supplies.

Associate professor Larelle Fabbro said yesterday researchers in Rockhampton had used very advanced techniques to study the toxin which originates in a unique blue-green alga that looks like kangaroo droppings.

“The project uses the genetic tests that are noted in programs such as CSI to track down unknown toxin producers,” she said.

The algae used to be confined to the Fairbairn Dam, near Emerald, but was washed throughout the Fitzroy catchment during last year’s floods.

Professor Fabbro, who is the principal investigator, said the discovery should lead to increased monitoring of Central Queensland waterways and reduced health risks for animals and people.

“Further work and funding is needed to isolate the toxin, determine its chemical structure and to assess its impact. The more information we have the better prepared we will be,” she said.

“As with all toxic, blue-green algae, the important elements are regular monitoring and optimal water treatment to avoid negative effects on public health.”

Asked specifically if she thought there was a risk to water users in the Rockhampton region, or whether the bug might have caused a big increase in gastro illnesses identified by Rockhampton doctors, she said more research would be needed.

“Advice from medical authorities who have examined the research data is that the upgraded water treatment facility at Glenmore should have all the required techniques and equipment to successfully reduce human health risks,” she said.

And Fitzroy River Water yesterday insisted the newly identified toxin didn’t pose any risk to the quality or safety of the drinking water supply.

A spokeswomen said although it was new to science, it was likely the algae and any associated toxin had been present in the river for many years.

“FRW assures all residents the drinking water in the region is of the highest quality,” she said.

Water was tested regularly by an independent laboratory and met all the regulated guidelines, said a statement.

“Glenmore Water Treatment Plant produces very high quality drinking water that does not contain any algae or toxin. The plant is designed to remove blue-green algae and toxin from untreated raw water.”

The statement said there had been algae in the barrage catchment for the past five months but algae cells and bacteria were removed during the normal operation of the plant.

The research is being conducted in association with the Australian Water Quality Centre, financed by the Australian Coal Association Research Program.

Findings have been notified to the Fitzroy Water Quality Advisory Group which was set up to closely monitor the health of the river system after a series of health scares associated with mine pumping after the catastrophic floods in 2008.

Professor Fabbro said there were a number of strains of blue-green algae in the Fitzroy and the type normally visible on the river’s surface was not toxic.

“The new toxin was discovered in samples taken from a depth of six or seven metres, in water that looked clear.”



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