The culprit behind poisoned seabirds, closed crab fisheries, stranded sea lions, and shellfish poisoning in humans are often diatoms producing the neurotoxin domoic acid. Now, scientists have identified the genes and biochemical processes responsible in diatoms of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia. The finding, published in the journal Science, opens the door to rapid genetic monitoring of algal blooms as a means to spot nascent harmful blooms and track their spread. “By identifying the genes that encode domoic acid production, we are now able to ask questions about what ocean conditions turn these genes on or off,” said lead author Patrick Brunson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The achievement comes not a moment too soon: with algal blooms getting larger and more frequent due to climate change, the need to close fisheries and beaches against algal toxins is urgent. KW

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Recent discoveries are promising new weapons against red tides, the massive blooms of microscopic marine algae that are notorious for playing havoc with marine ecosystems. The culprit behind poisoned seabirds, closed crab fisheries, stranded sea lions, and shellfish poisoning in humans are often diatoms producing the neurotoxin domoic acid. Now, scientists have identified the genes and biochemical processes responsible in diatoms of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia. The finding, published in the journal Science, opens the door to rapid genetic monitoring of algal blooms as a means to spot nascent harmful blooms and track their spread. "By identifying the genes that encode domoic acid production, we are now able to ask questions about what ocean conditions turn these genes on or off," said lead author Patrick Brunson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The achievement comes not a moment too soon: with algal blooms getting larger and more frequent due to climate change, the need to close fisheries and beaches against algal toxins is urgent. KW

About the author

Bay Area native Kathleen M. Wong is a science writer specializing in the natural history and environment of California and the West. With Ariel Rubissow Okamoto, she coauthored Natural History of San Francisco Bay (UC Press, 2011), for which she shared the 2013 Harold Gilliam Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. She reports on native species, climate change, and environmental conditions for Estuary, and is the science writer of the University of California Natural Reserve System.