Upstream nitrogen availability determines the Microcystis salt tolerance and influences microcystins release in brackish water

Xinlu Li, Lei Li, Yingying Huang, Haipeng Wu, Shiwen Sheng, Xinran Jiang, Xuechu Chen, Ilia Ostrovsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The occurrence of large Microcystis biomass in brackish waters is primarily caused by its downward transportation from the upstream freshwater lakes and reservoirs through rivers rather than due to in situ bloom formation. Factors that determine the survival of freshwater cyanobacteria in brackish waters have not been well investigated. Here, we studied the spatiotemporal variability of inorganic nitrogen in an upstream lake and conducted laboratory and in-situ experiments to assess the role of nitrogen availability on the salt tolerance of Microcystis and the release of microcystins. A series of field experiments were carried out during bloom seasons to evaluate the salt tolerance of natural Microcystis colonies. The salt tolerance threshold varied from 7 to 17 and showed a positive relationship with intracellular carbohydrate content and a negative relationship with nitrogen availability in water. In August when upstream nitrogen availability was lower, the Microcystis colonies could maintain their biomass even after a sudden increase in salinity from 4 to 10. Laboratory-cultivated Microcystis that accumulated higher carbohydrate content at lower nitrogen availability showed better cell survival at higher salinity. The sharp release of microcystins into the surrounding water occurred when salinity exceeded the salt tolerance threshold of the Microcystis. Thus, Microcystis with higher salt tolerance can accumulate more toxins in cells. The obtained results suggest that the cell survival and toxin concentration in brackish waters depend on the physiological properties of Microcystis formed in the upstream waters. Thus, the life history of Microcystis in upstream waters could have a significant impact on its salt tolerance in downstream brackish waters, where the ecological risk of the salt-tolerant Microcystis requires special and careful management in summer at low nitrogen availability.

Original languageEnglish
Article number121213
JournalWater Research
StatePublished - 15 Mar 2024
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024


  • Brackish water
  • Microcystis blooms
  • Nitrogen availability
  • Salt tolerance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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