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Algal Neurotoxin Lingers In The Ocean

Domoic acid, which causes environmental and human health problems, is more persistent in global oceans than previously thought

by Stephen K. Ritter
April 6, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 14

A neurotoxin called domoic acid produced by marine algae can spread farther and is more persistent in global oceans than previously thought, according to a study in Nature Geoscience (DOI: 10.1038/ngeo472). Seasonal blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia phytoplankton produce large amounts of domoic acid, which can cause digestive difficulties and short-term memory loss in people who ingest it in seafood. It's also linked to die-offs of sea lions, whales, and marine birds and was linked to the erratic behavior of souped-up birds in a California coastal town in 1961, which inspired the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock suspense film "The Birds." Until now, scientists had assumed that domoic acid rapidly dissipates at the ocean surface following algal blooms. But Emily Sekula-Wood and Claudia R. Benitez-Nelson of the University of South Carolina and coworkers, studying floating algal cells, sinking debris, and ocean sediment off the California coast via mass spectrometry and immunoassays, observed that the neurotoxin accumulates on the ocean floor in deeper water and may broadly contaminate the food chain at toxic levels. The finding could help avoid adverse environmental and human health problems, the researchers note, as well as aid the fishing industry.


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