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Scientists discover genetic basis for how harmful algae blooms become toxic

Scientists have uncovered the genetic basis for the production of domoic acid, a potent neurotoxin produced by certain harmful algae blooms. In a new study, researchers identified a cluster of genes related to the production of domoic acid in microscopic plants, or phytoplankton, called Pseudo-nitzschia. The researchers found that the genes contain the biological directions for how the toxin is made; these genes are "switched on" when Pseudo-nitzschia is producing domoic acid. By showing how genes for domoic acid production are turned on, the researchers suggest a way to connect the ocean conditions that drive algae blooms with the development of toxin production. Harmful algae blooms often come in the form of "red tides," so called because of the reddish tint they lend ocean waters. The blooms occur when phytoplankton grow rapidly, sometimes producing toxins that can sicken marine mammals and other species. Harmful algae blooms pose a threat to human health when the toxins accumulate in seafood. A high-dose exposure to domoic acid can lead to amnesic shellfish poisoning, a potentially fatal condition marked by seizures and short-term memory loss.

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