U.S – A groundbreaking scientific effort led by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in collaboration with U.S. and Norwegian partners has unraveled a long-standing mystery; the source of ciguatoxin, a potent marine toxin responsible for ciguatera poisoning in Caribbean waters.

This significant revelation holds the promise of enhanced food safety practices and a better grasp of the toxin’s distribution in the marine food web.

Ciguatera poisoning, an affliction that affects around 500,000 individuals worldwide annually, is caused by consuming fish like red snapper that have ingested ciguatoxin-producing algae.

Historically, the toxin has posed risks in regions including the Caribbean Sea, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean. However, climate change has extended its threat to waters such as those surrounding the Canary Islands, the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the western Gulf of Mexico.

Although the Pacific algal source of ciguatoxin was previously identified, the Caribbean source remained an enigma despite three decades of exploration.

Breakthrough years in the making

The turning point came in 2023, following a collaborative endeavor that took flight in 2018 under the guidance of NRC’s Biotoxin Metrology group.

This effort, which transcended borders, enlisted the expertise of the University of South Alabama, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Norwegian Veterinary Institute.

After diligent research, NRC researchers identified the elusive algal ciguatoxin. U.S. and Norwegian counterparts then contributed by showcasing the toxin’s transformation in fish species associated with ciguatera poisoning.

The pursuit of understanding began with the collection of algae samples from Caribbean coral reefs by U.S. scientists.

These samples were cultivated to develop algae cultures, subsequently undergoing toxicity screenings. Once toxic strains were identified, NRC researchers employed advanced techniques including high-resolution mass spectrometry and innovative chemistry to decode the toxin’s chemical composition.

This endeavor ultimately led to the identification of the previously unknown ciguatoxin. Norwegian experts then verified the transformation of the algal toxin into the fish-borne toxin through enzyme incubation experiments.

This discovery ushers in a new era of ciguatera toxin management. NRC continues its collaborative journey to develop cutting-edge metrological tools for handling ciguatoxin challenges.

The team will join forces with partners to craft certified reference materials, serving as vital tools for global research and testing laboratories striving to measure and comprehend ciguatoxin presence and impact.

The identification of the algal source of ciguatoxin in Caribbean waters marks a resounding achievement for the scientific community. Beyond demystifying a longstanding puzzle, this achievement heralds a safer future for seafood consumers and the ecosystem alike.

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