Diatoms Can Be Toxic
March 15th, 2009
ABOARD THE RVIB N. B. PALMER, ON THE SOUTHERN OCEAN– Phytoplankton cells can become toxic under certain conditions. Still a mystery to scientists why they produce toxins, there has been a proliferation of large concentrations of toxic cells, or blooms, also called red tides, during the last 20 years. Dinoflagellates are the most common of the toxic algae. They can produce compounds that after concentration in the guts of animals that eat them can be damaging to humans consuming shellfish. Clams, mussels and oysters are well known vectors for these toxins. Large fisheries in the US coastal regions are closed during periods of toxic algal blooms.
The diatom Pseudonitzchia, present in Antarctic waters, is well known for producing toxins. A large killing of birds in the Monterey area off the California coast made everyone aware of this alga. During this cruise we are collecting samples for Dr. Mary Silver at the University of California Santa Cruz who has studied this phenomenon in the world’s oceans. First thought to be only a coastal process, it seems Pseudonitzchia can be abundant in the open ocean, far from land. In this collaboration, Dr. Silver will measure the toxin domoic acid and we will provide the information on which species of Pseudonitzchia we collect and how many of the cells are found that can later be related to domoic acid concentration. In this way, Antarctic phytoplankton will be represented in the database of toxic phytoplankton species if indeed we find they produce toxins.