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NCCOS Research Project

New Tools to Aid in Managing Ciguatera Poisoning Risks in the Caribbean

Primary Contact(s): marc.suddleson@noaa.gov
This project began in January 2011 and was completed in December 2015

Ciguatera fish poisoning is the most frequently reported non-bacterial illness associated with eating fish in the United States and the U. S. territorial islands. Ciguatera significantly impacts commercial and recreational fishing activities in the U.S. and worldwide. This first-ever, large scale coordinated monitoring study of ciguatera fish poisoning will explain factors that make this disease so prevalent and develop methods to predict future outbreaks.

Why We Care
Ciguatera fish poisoning disease (CFP) is the most common form of algal toxin-induced seafood poisoning in the world affecting tens of thousands of people annually. CFP is primarily caused by members of the bottom dwelling, dinoflagellate genus, GambierdiscusGambierdiscus lives on the surfaces of corals and seaweeds which are grazed by herbivorous fish and invertebrates. Toxins produced by Gambierdiscus contaminate these marine animals and the carnivores that feed upon them causing toxins to move into the food chain. Eating tropical marine reef fish contaminated with Gambierdiscus toxins can cause CFP illness characterized by digestive and nervous system disorders in humans. Increasingly, CFP outbreaks are found globally but continue to most heavily impact tropical and subtropical island cultures that depend upon reef fish for sustenance. CFP outbreaks have proved impossible to predict and manage to date. This regional study, Ciguatera Investigations in the greater Caribbean region, or CIGUAHAB, will lead to predictive capabilities that will lessen the impacts of CFP illnesses by reducing exposure to toxins.

What We Are Doing
We are sampling coral, seaweed, and reef fish throughout the greater Caribbean region over five years to document Gambierdiscus diversity, distribution, physiology, and toxicity. Each year we intensively monitor at field sites in St. Thomas and the Florida Keys. We will sample less frequently on Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, along the Mexican coast, and in the Bahamas. Lab cultures of Gambierdiscus we collect will support genetic diversity, growth, and toxin production studies. We will analyze fish samples for CFP toxicity and determine toxin congeners that result from biotransformation. This work will allow the identification of key factors that control Gambierdiscus growth and toxicity and the design of computer models capable of predicting where and when CFP risks are greatest. CIGUAHAB leverages past U.S. Centers for Disease Control research in the U.S. Virgin Islands advancing monitoring in an area long impacted by CFP.

The CIGUAHAB project is part of the  Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB). The project is led by Dr. Michael Parsons, Florida Gulf Coast University. Project partners include Dr. Donald Anderson and Dr. Mindy Richlen (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Dr. Deana Erdner (University of Texas), Dr. Ron Kiene (University of South Alabama), Dr. Yuri Okolodkov (University of Veracruz, Mexico), Dr. Alison Robertson (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and Dr. Tyler Smith (University of the Virgin Islands).

Benefits of Our Work
This project will provide critical advances in our knowledge of the ecology of Gambierdiscus and factors that control CFP outbreaks. The development of a model to predict how the alga responds to environmental conditions will enable new management strategies to be explored.  Predictive tools will enable predictions of when and where outbreaks are likely to occur lessening human illnesses by reducing the exposure to the toxins that cause CFP.

Additional Resources

Click to expand resource list(s).

Peer-Reviewed Publications

Bennett, Clayton, Alison Robertson, and Will Carpenter. 2019. First record of the non-indigenous Indo-Pacific damselfish, Neopomacentrus cyanomos (Bleeker, 1856) in the northern Gulf of Mexico. BioInvasions Records 8(1): 154-166 doi: 10.3391/bir.2019.8.1.17

Brandt, Ashley Lauren. 2016. Benthic community structure and responses to environmental drivers in the Florida Keys. M. S. Thesis, Florida Gulf Coast University.

Catania, Daniela, Mindy L. Richlen, Yim Ling Mak, Steve L. Morton, Elizabeth H. Laban, Yixiao Xu, Donald M. Anderson, Leo Lai Chan, Michael L. Berumen. 2018. The Prevalence of Benthic Dinoflagellates Associated with Ciguatera Fish Poisoning in the Central Red Sea. Harmful Algae 68: 206-216. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2017.08.005

Dahl, Kristen A., William F. Patterson, Alison Robertson, and Alice C. Ortmann. 2017. DNA barcoding significantly improves resolution of invasive lionfish diet in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Biological Invasions 19(6): 1917–1933.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-017-1407-3

Leynse, Alexander Kenneth. 2016. Nutritional and Photophysiological Approaches to Identifying the Niche of Gambierdiscus: Insight into the Ecology of Ciguatera Fish Poisoning. M. S. Thesis, Florida Gulf Coast University.

Leynse, Alexander K. Michael L. Parsons, and Serge E. Thomas. 2017. Differences in the photoacclimation and photoprotection exhibited by two species of the ciguatera causing dinoflagellate genus, Gambierdiscus. Harmful Algae 70: 90-97. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2017.10.008

Loeffler, Christopher R., Alison Robertson, Harold A. Flores Quintana, Miguel C. Silander, Tyler B. Smith, and David Olsen. 2018. Ciguatoxin prevalence in 4 commercial fish species along an oceanic exposure gradient in the US Virgin Islands. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 37 (7): 1852-1863. doi:10.1002/etc.4137

Loeffler, Christopher R., Mindy L. Richlen, Marilyn E. Brandt, and Tyler B. Smith. 2015. Effects of grazing, nutrients, and depth on the ciguatera-causing dinoflagellate Gambierdiscus in the US Virgin Islands. Marine Ecology Progress Series 531: 91-104. doiI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps11310

Lopez, Maria-Cecilia, Ricardo F. Ungaro, Henry V.Baker, Lyle L. Moldawer, Alison Robertson, Margaret Abbott, Sparkle M. Roberts, Lynn M.Grattan, and J. Glenn Morris Jr. 2016. Gene expression patterns in peripheral blood leukocytes in patients with recurrent ciguatera fish poisoning: Preliminary studies. Harmful Algae 57(Pt. B): 35-38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2016.03.009

Lozano-Duque, Yesid, Mindy L. Richlen, Tyler B. Smith, Donald M. Anderson, and Deana L. Erdner. 2018. Development and validation of a PCR-RFLP assay for identification of Gambierdiscus species in the Greater Caribbean region. Journal of Applied Phycology 30 (6): 3529-3540. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10811-018-1491-5

Lyu, Yihu, Mindy L. Richlen, Taylor R. Sehein, Mireille Chinain, and Donald M. Anderson. 2017. LSU rDNA based RFLP assays for the routine identification of Gambierdiscus species. Harmful Algae 66: 20-28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2017.04.009

Parsons, Michael L., Ashley L. Brandt, Amanda Ellsworth, Alex K.Leynse, Lacey K.Rains, and Donald M. Anderson. 2017. Assessing the use of artificial substrates to monitor Gambierdiscus populations in the Florida Keys. Harmful Algae 68: 52-66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2017.07.007

Parsons, Michael L., Mindy L. Richlen, and Alison Robertson. 2018. Harmful Algal Species Fact Sheet: Gambierdiscus. In: Sandra E. Shumway, Joann M. Burkholder, and Steve L. Morton (Eds.). Harmful Algae: A Compendium Desk Reference, John Wiley & Sons. Chapter 16j, pp. 601- 604.

Pitz, Kathleen Johnson. 2016. Phenotypic diversity within two toxic dinoflagellate genera : environmental and transcriptomic studies of species diversity in alexandrium and gambierdiscus. Doctoral Dissertation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pitz, Katie. 2014.  Trouble in the Tropics: Scientist explores mysterious food-borne illness: ciguatera. Oceanus (November 26, 2014).

Rains, Lacey Kay. 2015. Effects of macroalgal hosts on the growth and epiphytic behavior of five Gambierdiscus species from the greater Caribbean region. M. S. Thesis, Florida Gulf Coast University.

Rains, Lacey K. and Michael L. Parsons. 2015. Gambierdiscus species exhibit different epiphytic behaviors toward a variety of macroalgal hosts. Harmful Algae 49: 29-39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2015.08.005

Robertson, Alison, Ana C. Garcia, Harold A. Flores Quintana, Tyler B. Smith, Bernard F. Castillo II, Kynoch Reale-Munroe, Joseph A. Gulli, David A. Olsen, Jennifer I. Hooe-Rollman, Edward L. E. Jester, Brian J. Klimek, and Steven M. Plakas. 2014. Invasive Lionfish (Pterois volitans): A Potential Human Health Threat for Ciguatera Fish Poisoning in Tropical Waters. Marine Drugs 12(1): 88-97. https://doi.org/10.3390/md12010088

Rumbold, Darren G., Christopher T. Lienhardt, and Michael L. Parsons. 2018. Mercury Biomagnification Through a Coral Reef Ecosystem. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 75(1): 121–133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00244-018-0523-0

Sassenhagen, Ingrid and Deana L. Erdner. 2017. Microsatellite markers for the dinoflagellate Gambierdiscus caribaeus from high-throughput sequencing data. Journal of Applied Phycology 29(4): 1927–1932.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10811-017-1076-8

Sassenhagen, Ingrid, Yida Gao, Yesid Lozano-Duque, Michael L. Parsons, Tyler B. Smith, and Deana L. Erdner. 2018. Comparison of Spatial and Temporal Genetic Differentiation in a Harmful Dinoflagellate Species Emphasizes Impact of Local Processes. Frontiers in Marine Science 5:393. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00393

Stanca, Elena and Michael L. Parsons. 2017. Phytoplankton diversity along spatial and temporal gradients in the Florida Keys. Journal of Plankton Research 39(3): 531–549. https://doi.org/10.1093/plankt/fbx006

Xu, Yixiao, Mindy L. Richlen, Justin D. Liefer, Alison Robertson, David Kulis, Tyler B. Smith, Michael L. Parsons, and Donald M. Anderson. 2016. Influence of Environmental Variables on Gambierdiscus spp. (Dinophyceae) Growth and Distribution. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153197. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153197

Xu, Yixiao, Mindy L. Richlen, Steve L. Morton, Yim Ling Mak, Leo Lai Chan, Aranteiti Tekiaue, and Donald M. Anderson. 2014. Distribution, abundance and diversity of Gambierdiscus spp. from a ciguatera-endemic area in Marakei, Republic of Kiribati. Harmful Algae, 34: 56-68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2014.02.007

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