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How Algae Becomes Toxic

October 12, 2018


A team led by scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) has uncovered the genetic basis for the production of domoic acid, a potent neurotoxin produced by harmful algal blooms.

A high-dose exposure to domoic acid, produced by a type of phytoplankton known as diatoms in the genus Pseudo-nitzschia, can lead to amnesic shellfish poisoning, a potentially fatal condition characterized by seizures and short-term memory loss.

In a new study appearing in the Sept. 28 edition of Science, the team of UC San Diego and JCVI scientists identified a cluster of genes associated with production of the toxin domoic acid in the marine phytoplankton Pseudo-nitzschia.

This type of microalgae is noteworthy because in the summer of 2015 it caused the largest harmful algal bloom ever recorded off the West Coast of North America, from Alaska to Santa Barbara, and resulted in the closure of fisheries and crabbing seasons to protect consumers from potential shellfish poisoning.

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