Fast new test for terrible form of food poisoning

November 09, 2011

Scientists are reporting development of a fast, reliable new test that could help people avoid a terrible type of food poisoning that comes from eating fish tainted with a difficult-to-detect toxin from marine algae growing in warm waters. The report appears in ACS' journal Analytical Chemistry.

Takeshi Yasumoto and colleagues explain that 20,000-60,000 people every year come down with ciguatera poisoning from eating fish tainted with a ciguatoxin -- the most common source of food poisoning from a natural toxin. Fish, such as red snapper and sea bass, get the toxin by eating smaller fish that feast on marine algae that produce the toxin in tropical and subtropical areas, such as the Gulf Coast of the U.S. There's no warning that a fish has the toxin -- it smells, looks and tastes fine. But within hours of ingesting the toxin, people with ciguatera have symptoms that often include vomiting, diarrhea, numbness or tingling in the arms and legs and muscle and joint aches. Debilitating symptoms may last for months. The current test for the toxin involved giving it to laboratory mice and watching them for symptoms. It is time-consuming, may miss the small amounts present in fish, and can't tell the difference between certain forms of the disease. That's why Yasumoto's group developed a faster, more sensitive test.

They describe development of a new test, using standard laboratory instruments, that avoids those draw backs. Yasumoto's team proved its effectiveness by identifying 16 different forms of the toxin in fish from the Pacific Ocean. Clear regional differences emerged -- for example, snappers and groupers off Okinawa shores had one type, whereas spotted knifejaw captured several miles north of Okinawa had another type. They also identified 12 types of toxin in a marine alga in French Polynesia, which could be the primary toxin source. The researchers say that the method outperforms current detection methods and in addition to helping diagnose patients, it will also help scientists study how the toxins move through the food chain from one animal to another.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan.
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The American Chemical Society is a non-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 163,000 members, ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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