Cyanobacterial blooms


Cyanobacteria can form dense and sometimes toxic blooms in freshwater and marine environments, which threaten ecosystem functioning and degrade water quality for recreation, drinking water, fisheries and human health. Here, we review evidence indicating that cyanobacterial blooms are increasing in frequency, magnitude and duration globally. We highlight species traits and environmental conditions that enable cyanobacteria to thrive and explain why eutrophication and climate change catalyse the global expansion of cyanobacterial blooms. Finally, we discuss management strategies, including nutrient load reductions, changes in hydrodynamics and chemical and biological controls, that can help to prevent or mitigate the proliferation of cyanobacterial blooms.

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Fig. 1: Cyanobacterial blooms.

Images in parts b and c courtesy of the European Space Agency, © ESA 2011, CC-BY-SA-3.0 IGO. Image in part d courtesy of L. Krienitz, Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Germany. Image in part f courtesy of S. Flury, EAWAG, Switzerland.

Fig. 2: Six common bloom-forming cyanobacteria.

Image in part a courtesy of W. van Egmond, Netherlands. Images in parts b–d courtesy of A. Ballot, Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), Norway. Image in part e courtesy of M. Stomp, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Fig. 3: The CO2-concentrating mechanism of cyanobacteria.
Fig. 4: Climate change will affect cyanobacterial blooms in multiple ways.

Part a adapted from ref.143, Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Fig. 5: Strategies for the prevention and control of cyanobacterial blooms.


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The authors thank J. van Arkel for help with the drawings and A. Ballot, W. van Egmond, S. Flury, E. Killer, L. Krienitz and M. Stomp for sharing their photographs. H.W.P. was supported by the US National Science Foundation and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. J.M.H.V. was supported by Amsterdam Water Science, which was funded by the Amsterdam Academic Alliance.

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Nature Reviews Microbiology thanks B. Neilan, B. Qin and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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J.H. researched data for the article. J.H., G.A.C., H.W.P., J.M.H.V. and P.M.V. wrote the article. All authors contributed substantially to discussion of the content and reviewed and edited the manuscript before submission.

Correspondence to Jef Huisman.

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The excessive enrichment of ecosystems with dissolved nutrients (for example, nitrate and phosphate), usually through human activity.


Microscopically small photosynthetic algae, such as green algae and diatoms, and cyanobacteria drifting in the water.

Benthic cyanobacteria

Cyanobacteria that live on sediments, rocks and other benthic organisms.


Macroscopic multicellular algae, such as seaweeds.

Turf algae

Heterogeneous assemblages of benthic algae and cyanobacteria, visible by the naked eye but smaller than 1 cm in height.


Microcompartments in cyanobacterial cells that hold the enzyme Rubisco, a key enzyme involved in the first step of CO2 fixation.

Stokes’ law

A mathematical equation describing the terminal velocity of small particles in a fluid medium such as water.

Secondary metabolites

Organic compounds that are produced by organisms but not directly involved in the growth or reproduction of these organisms.


Small animals that drift in water.


A group of small crustaceans of the subclass Copepoda, often with a cylindrical body, two large antennae and a head that is fused with the thorax.


A group of small crustaceans of the order Cladocera with a carapace covering the thorax and abdomen, for example, water fleas.


A common group of cyanobacteria with a specific type of carboxysome and Rubisco that differ from the carboxysome and Rubisco in other cyanobacteria.


A highly diverse group of unicellular photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic organisms that move through water using one longitudinal and one transverse flagellum.


A thin layer in lakes and seas in which temperature decreases rapidly with depth, separating the warmer surface mixed layer from the colder deep water below.


A highly diverse group of microscopically small photosynthetic algae of the class Bacillariophyceae that are enclosed by a cell wall of silica.

Dreissenid mussels

Freshwater bivalve mussels of the genus Dreissena (for example, zebra and quagga mussels) indigenous to the Ponto–Caspian area and invasive species in Western Europe and North America.

Planktivorous fish

Fish feeding on plankton.

Benthivorous fish

Fish feeding on prey from the sediment.

Piscivorous fish

Fish feeding on fish.


Emergent, submerged or floating aquatic plants.

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Huisman, J., Codd, G.A., Paerl, H.W. et al. Cyanobacterial blooms. Nat Rev Microbiol 16, 471–483 (2018).

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