EDUCATION: On the Trail of Rogue Algae

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Science  18 Oct 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5593, pp. 501
DOI: 10.1126/science.298.5593.501a

You don't want the dainty dinoflagellate Karenia brevis to join you for dinner. The marine alga, which can contaminate fish and shellfish, exudes a potent toxin that can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Find out more about the five main kinds of algal poisoning in U.S. waters at the Web site Toxic and Harmful Algal Blooms, hosted by the nonprofit Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in West Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

The site describes the algal malefactors behind deadly blooms such as ciguatera fish poisoning and paralytic shellfish poisoning, explains their effects on humans and other organisms, and uncovers the chemical details of their poisons. Species within the phytoplankton genus Alexandrium, the culprits in paralytic shellfish poisoning, can taint shellfish with saxitoxin, a toxin that the United States once stockpiled as a potential chemical weapon. It slams the sodium channels in nerve cells and can paralyze an unlucky diner's breathing muscles. Even if they don't leak toxins, algae can still kill. The brown tides common off the East and Gulf coasts are population explosions of Aureococcus algae. They spin a gooey, mucuslike material that can choke some filter-feeding aquatic animals.

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