Our Ocean World
Thurs. 2003.02.13

Saxitoxin Sensor

Paralytic shellfish poisoning strikes hundreds of people worldwide each year. The substance that causes it, saxitoxin, is difficult to detect. But some scientists are developing a fast, cheap test. Today, testing for poisons in - Our Ocean World.

Saxitoxin, produced by algae called dinoflagellates, (dyno-fladge-uh-lits) is so toxic that it is classified as a schedule one (1) chemical weapon - along with mustard gas and sarin. People are poisoned when they eat shellfish and other seafood laden with the substance.

Many countries monitor shellfish beds using mice, much like miner's canaries of the past. This practice is expensive and ethically contentious. Chemist Roger Leblanc and his colleagues at the University of Miami wanted to make something better.

"We felt …if it is possible to have a biosensor with the same sensitiivty, …we will save first of all any mouse. . . . Second, the price … of the biosensor might be quite cheap. "

The alternative? Researchers combined two chemicals to produce a compound that glows only in water that contains the toxin. The hybrid chemical comes from a class of molecules called crown ethers which fluoresce when illuminated with ultraviolet light. Now they're trying to develop a handheld sensor and light source that can be used by fishermen anywhere. I'm Marilyn Cooley.

Our Ocean World is produced in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-NOAA. Learn more about our natural world Visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - NOAA

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