Molecular study questions Pfiesteria's link to coastal fish kills, threat to public health

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL - Coastal fish kills and a potential threat to public health previously linked to the single-celled marine creature Pfiesteria piscicida may be a case of mistaken identity.

Using new molecular detection methods, a study headed by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scientist found no indication that the Pfiesteria life cycle as originally described is unusually complex with many amoeba-like toxic stages.

Many of the stages were reported to be associated with fish kills in the Chesapeake Bay area and North Carolina estuary waters during the 1990s. Pfiesteria stages and their putative neurotoxin also were blamed for health problems, particularly cognitive impairment, among people exposed to the organism, local crabbers and several research laboratory technicians.

Instead, the new study showed a simple life cycle for Pfiesteria piscicida similar to many other marine organisms of its kind, the dinoflagellates.

The new findings are detailed in the June issue of the Journal of Phycology, a leading publication in marine algae sciences. Authors of the report are from UNC; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funded the research; and North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Wayne Litaker, a member of the Program in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the UNC School of Medicine, is principal author of the study.

In the 1990s, much of the regional news coverage portrayed Pfiesteria against a backdrop of fear and near-hysteria among coastal residents of Maryland and North Carolina. Later, Rodney Barker's book on the subject, "And the Waters Turned to Blood," raised a horrific specter of potential human disaster.

As many as 24 life cycle stages were originally described for Pfiesteria piscicida in a report published in the journal Limnology and Oceanography in 1997.

"These stages included amoebae and cyst forms not previously known in free-living m

Contact: Leslie Lang
University of North Carolina School of Medicine

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