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Toxic Blue-Green Algae: 17-year-old Griffin Wagner Takes Matters Into His Own Hands

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Tania Ortega-Cowan
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Here along the Treasure Coast, we’re all too familiar with toxic blue green algae. It makes people sick… it kills dogs, fish and sea grass… and it costs millions to fight.

Well, you can file this one under hope for the future: 17-year old Griffin Wagner of Vero Beach has taken the matter into his own hands.

GW: Yes.

His successful effort is proof that necessity is the mother of invention.

GW: I am Griffin Wagner – I am a senior from Vero Beach High School.

He’s been very busy…

GW: …testing Lagoon water for blue-green algae blooms and microcystin toxins.

His work earned him 4th place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Physical Sciences this year!

GW: A lot of people, they hear about these blooms and they see them and they are inconvenienced from going out in the Lagoon, but they don’t actually know how catastrophic it is.

He’s already self-published a book on his findings.

GW: Almost every weekend I go out kayaking on the Lagoon. I also have a sailboat I go out sailing on, so the Lagoon is a big part of my community and who I am.

Three years ago, he began to notice the algae. The more he learned, the more…

GW: ….I wanted to build a computer program that could be able to predict when these blooms are coming.

A lofty goal considering…

GW: …there was no data base of algae blooms and back then I had never written a line of code!

For two years he spent all available time gathering data and learning computer code.

GW: And then last year I built this computer program that can actually predict where and when these blue-green algae blooms are going to form.

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Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan
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It also shows why, so we can potentially make last minute adjustments, like…

GW: …You could tell farmers to limit their fertilizer usage, or the surrounding houses, you could say don’t use fertilizer on your lawns for the next two days…

and…

GW: …mitigate the severity by up to 50%.

Wagner created an algorithm that continually interprets data streaming from 10 stations along the Indian River Lagoon owned by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute called…

GW: LOBOS

…which stands for…

GW: Land Ocean Bio-geochemical Observatory

Wagner is now getting the program patented.

GW: I am not going to make this a closed patent. Anyone can use this program that wants to… and have them actually implement it for mitigation efforts! That’d be much more important than making money off of it.

The technology can be applied to worldwide algae problems as well. Here’s Wagner’s teacher.

JB: So, my name’s Jeff Bush and I am the biotechnology teacher here at Vero Beach High School. What Griffin has done is something no one has done yet. And so, what is really impressive is he is creating something that is new and that could be used by professional scientists.

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Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan
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Jeff Bush and Griffin Wagner

Wagner is already working alongside scientists at Harbor Branch as he expands his work to detect dangerous invisible microcystin toxins produced by the algae.

GW: You will never know it’s there. But if you ingest it – it can cause hay fever symptoms, or long-term liver damage. Also, it has been linked to Alzheimer’s and ALS.

He spent this past summer in the Lagoon collecting water samples in order to...

GW: …create the first database of microcystin in the Lagoon correlated with water quality and then I can build a machine learning application that can actually detect where it is going to occur. We can alert populations saying if you are going to go fishing, if you are going to go boating, don’t go in this part of the Lagoon because it is the most likely area to be contaminated.

Wagner is currently applying to colleges to study both computer science and computational biology to use artificial intelligence to tailor drugs to people and develop new drugs.

By the way, Harbor Branch streams the data from those 10 LOBOs on their website for everyone to who wants to see it. Visit http://fau.loboviz.com/