Red Tide Toxin Theory Confirmed

The Associated Press
Published: August 31, 2007

WASHINGTON – Researchers have finally confirmed a 20-year-old theory about how the red tide algae produce their toxins.

The finding may be a first step in protecting seaside communities, shellfish beds, marine mammals and humans from the periodic outbreaks of the dangerous tides.

Red tides are natural occurrences, when water temperature and salinity encourage overproduction of some algae and plankton. Not all red tides are poisonous, but some are.

A massive red tide struck from Maine to Cape Cod in 1972, and others have occurred in the region since. Red tide has killed manatees in Florida.

Some speculate the Bible’s first plague of ancient Egypt, when water turned to blood, was a red tide.

Associate Professor Timothy F. Jamison at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports in Friday’s edition of the journal Science that researchers have duplicated a cascade-type chemical reaction to produce red tide toxins.

In 1985, chemist Koji Nakanishi of Columbia University suggested that the algae used a cascade of chemical steps to produce red tide toxins. Until now, researchers have been unable to demonstrate such a reaction in a laboratory.

Jamison and graduate student Ivan Vilotijevic were able to jump-start the reaction, which then proceeded to form the chemicals. A key was conducting the reaction in water, Jamison said.

Most reactions are tested in organic solvents, but they found that when water was added, the reaction took place more quickly and directly.

‘The trick is to give it a little push in the right direction and get it running smoothly,’ Jamison said in a statement.

He theorized the dinoflagellates that produce the chemicals in nature jump-start the reaction using an enzyme.

One chemical produced is brevenal, which is related to the red tide toxins but has shown to have potential as a treatment for cystic fibrosis.

The research was funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Merck Research Laboratories, Boehringer Ingelheim and MIT.


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