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NOAA Develops New Rapid Test for Shellfish Toxin

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Mercury Science Inc. of Durham, N.C., are testing a new method to rapidly detect and accurately measure domoic acid, a harmful marine algal toxin that can cause serious illness and death in humans and marine mammals.

“This new test gives marine resource managers and public health officials the ability to provide advance warning to the public, preventing illness and conserving marine resources. What used to take three days to analyze and detect, can now be done with a simple test in two hours,” said John H. Dunnigan, NOAA assistant administrator for the National Ocean Service. “The transfer of this NOAA scientific research into a commercially viable product is an important goal in NOAA fulfilling its missions to promote sustainable and safe use of coastal resources.”

The tests came about from requests by the Quileute Nation in the Pacific Northwest to help them manage the public health risks associated with their shellfish harvests. “We could not be more enthusiastic to see this technology go forward and become more readily available to the coastal tribes and other communities,” said Joe Schumacker, Quinault tribal fisheries manager.

The new test uses a relatively inexpensive process called ELISA—enzyme–linked immunosorbent assay—to detect low levels of domoic acid in the water before shellfish become too toxic to harvest. Both the Quileute tribe and the Quinault nation currently employ the ELISA test kits and can process samples and analyze the results in their own environmental laboratories within two hours of harvest. Previously, it took up to three days for test results to become available.

In the Pacific Northwest, thousands of recreational clammers are affected by closure of shellfish beds during domoic acid events, which can cost coastal communities as much as $12 million in lost tourism. Coastal tribes also lose an important subsistence resource and a commercial harvest worth hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Current regulations for managing resources to avoid domoic acid poisoning require a cautious approach to closing shell fishing waters. Those economic losses and threats to human health can be significantly reduced with more timely and precise detection techniques.

The new test kit procedures are currently being evaluated by NOAA Fisheries, and the states of Washington and California.

NOAA has transferred the responsibility for the production, marketing and distribution of the kits to Mercury Science. NOAA’s lab in in Beaufort, N.C. conducted the research that led to the new test kit.

In 2007 NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, celebrates 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the Survey of the Coast in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America’s scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate–related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

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