Saxitoxin Puffer Fish Poisoning in the United States, with the First Report of Pyrodinium Bahamense as the Putative Toxin Source

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: From January 2002 to May 2004, 28 puffer fish poisoning (PFP) cases in Florida, New Jersey, Virginia, and New York were linked to the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) in Florida. Saxitoxins (STXs) of unknown source were first identified in fillet remnants from a New Jersey PFP case in 2002.

METHODS: We used the standard mouse bioassay (MBA), receptor binding assay (RBA), mouse neuroblastoma cytotoxicity assay (MNCA), Ridascreen ELISA, MIST Alert assay, HPLC, and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) to determine the presence of STX, decarbamoyl STX (dc-STX), and N-sulfocarbamoyl (B1) toxin in puffer fish tissues, clonal cultures, and natural bloom samples of Pyrodinium bahamense from the IRL.

RESULTS: We found STXs in 516 IRL southern (Sphoeroides nephelus), checkered (Sphoeroides testudineus), and bandtail (Sphoeroides spengleri) puffer fish. During 36 months of monitoring, we detected STXs in skin, muscle, and viscera, with concentrations up to 22,104 [micro]g STX equivalents (eq)/100 g tissue (action level, 80 [micro]g STX eq/100 g tissue) in ovaries. Puffer fish tissues, clonal cultures, and natural bloom samples of P. bahamense from the IRL tested toxic in the MBA, RBA, MNCA, Ridascreen ELISA, and MIST Alert assay and positive for STX, dc-STX, and B1 toxin by HPLC and LC-MS. Skin mucus of IRL southern puffer fish captive for 1-year was highly toxic compared to Florida Gulf coast puffer fish. Therefore, we confirm puffer fish to be a hazardous reservoir of STXs in Florida's marine waters and implicate the dinoflagellate P. bahamense as the putative toxin source.

CONCLUSIONS: Associated with fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in the Pacific but not known to be toxic in the western Atlantic, P. bahamense is an emerging public health threat. We propose characterizing this food poisoning syndrome as saxitoxin puffer fish poisoning (SPFP) to distinguish it from PFP, which is traditionally associated with tetrodotoxin, and from PSP caused by STXs in shellfish.

KEY WORDS: dinoflagellate, Florida, harmful algae, puffer fish, Pyrodinium bahamense, saxitoxin puffer fish poisoning, saxitoxins, Sphoeroides spp. Environ Health Perspect 114:1502-1507 (2006). doi:10.1289/ehp.8998 available via [Online 6 July 2006]


Puffer fish poisoning (PFP) is usually caused by ingestion of tetrodotoxins (TTXs) found naturally in certain species of puffer fish (Halstead 1967; Mosher and Fuhrmann 1984). In Japan, 20-100 people die annually from PFP, in spite of stringent controls by authorities (Ogura 1971). TTXs can cause fatal human poisoning, which is similar to paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) caused by saxitoxins (STXs). PSP is caused by the consumption of toxic shellfish (Shumway 1990) and rarely by fish that have have become toxic after feeding on STX-producing microalgae (Maclean 1979). As well as TTXs, STXs have also been found in at least 12 marine and freshwater puffer fish species in Asia (Ahmed et al. 2001; Kodama et al. 1983; Kungsuwan et al. 1997; Nakamura et al. 1984; Nakashima et al. 2004; Sato et al. 1997, 2000; Zaman et al. 1997), but their bioorigin has not been identified.

TTXs are chemically distinct from STXs, but both neurotoxins produce similar symptoms in mammals because they act on site 1 of the voltage-dependent sodium channel, blocking the influx of sodium into excitable cells and restricting signal transmission along nerve and muscle membranes (Ahmed 1991). The symptoms of traditional PFP from TTXs and of PSP from STXs include tingling and numbness of the mouth, lips, tongue, face, and fingers; paralysis of the extremities; nausea; vomiting; ataxia; drowsiness; difficulty in speaking; progressively decreasing ventilatory efficiency; and finally in extreme cases, death by asphyxiation caused by respiratory paralysis (Ahmed 1991; Catterall 1985; Kao 1993).

PFP cases in Europe (Kao 1993) and Mexico (Nunez-Vazquez et al. …