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New research supports conclusions reached by Old Dominion University biologists about the toxicity of the dinoflagellate Pfiesteria piscicida.

Anyone who lived on the East Coast during the 1990s will remember the Pfiesteria scares. The single-cell algae, which are commonly found in coastal waters, were blamed by some scientists for large fish kills and for sickness in humans.

Among the accusers have been ODU's Andrew S. Gordon, professor of Biological Sciences, and Harold G. Marshall, Morgon Professor Emeritus and professor emeritus of biological sciences. The two faculty members have been involved in studies led by JoAnn M. Burkholder of North Carolina State University.

But to be the fish-kill culprit, the tiny organisms would seemingly have to turn their toxicity on and off. Contrarians in the science community said their experiments showed no toxicity threat from the tiny organisms.

Now a new study by a team of chemists and toxicologists led by Peter Moeller of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicates that Pfiesteria do, indeed, produce toxin under certain circumstances, but that the poison quickly dissipates, making it an elusive target for researchers. The Moeller team calls for more research to link its laboratory findings to incidents of toxicity in the wild.

Moeller's seven-year study was the subject of a news story last week on the Web site, Environmental Science and Technology Online News, and ODU's Gordon is among the scientists who are quoted. His comments also appeared in a related story Friday, Jan. 12, in The Virginian-Pilot. The journal of the American Chemical Society will publish the full research findings in February.

"I don't think the controversy is solved by this publication," Gordon told Environmental Science and Technology, "but it gives us a paper tiger to test."

This article was posted on: January 17, 2007

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