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Saxitoxin: A Dangerous Neurotoxin
Saxitoxin is a very potent neurotoxin, and the paralytic shellfish toxin (PST) that is most frequently responsible for human poisonings (1). It endangers shellfish-consumers around the globe, especially those living in coastal communities. Saxitoxin acts by blocking voltage-gated sodium channels in neurons, inhibiting signalling in the brain and throughout the body (1). This can lead to paralysis, and even death.
Saxitoxin and Shellfish
Shellfish are an important component of the diets of British Columbians due to their high protein content and natural abundance along the B.C. coastline. Particularly within rural and Indigenous communities, shellfish are a staple food with great dietary and cultural importance (2). Shellfish fisheries also represent an important segment of the economy in coastal communities.
Saxitoxin and Harmful Algal Blooms
Dinoflagellates and cyanobacteria that cause harmful algal blooms produce potent marine biotoxins that accumulate within the tissue of the shellfish that consume them (1). As a result, self-harvesters in rural communities often refrain from eating shellfish, or in cases where food is scarce, they are forced to put themselves at great risk with no medical facilities within close proximity. This risk has resulted in deaths and severe illness of many people in B.C. and it is likely that many cases go unreported in remote communities (3).
Climate change is projected to increase both the frequency and severity of harmful algal blooms, which will only worsen the situation and put coastal people all around the world at a greater risk (4).
Problem with Saxitoxin Detection
Currently, the majority of testing for PSP toxins in B.C. is done by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in a laboratory in Vancouver using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) (5). They monitor PSP levels in the waters off the B.C. coast, but reports are not always accurate as conditions can quickly change and frequent testing isn't always feasible.
The only other option is getting their shellfish samples to the CFIA for testing, but this is time consuming and expensive due to travel costs, so it is often disregarded.
Our Solution: An Innovative Biosensor
UBC iGEM has recognized the urgency of this issue and believe on-site PSP testing would allow remote communities and shellfish producers to remove the uncertainty that revolves around shellfish consumption. We are harnessing the power of synthetic biology to create an innovative transcription-based biosensor, called Paralyte-STX. This will protect consumers, producers and the local industry.
1) Clark, R.F., Williams, S.R., Nordt, S.P., Manoguerra, A.S. (1999). A review of selected seafood poisonings. Undersea Hyperb Med, 26(3), 175-84. PMID: 10485519
2) Cisneros-Montemayor, A., Pauly, D., Weatherdon, L., & Ota, Y. (2016). A Global Estimate of Seafood Consumption by Coastal Indigenous Peoples. PLOS ONE, 11(12), e0166681. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166681
3) Quayle, D. (1966). Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning Safe Shellfish. Retrieved 19 October 2019, from http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/31230.pdf
4) Moore, S., Trainer, V., Mantua, N., Parker, M., Laws, E., Backer, L., & Fleming, L. (2008). Impacts of climate variability and future climate change on harmful algal blooms and human health. Environmental Health, 7(Suppl 2), S4. doi: 10.1186/1476-069x-7-s2-s4
5) CFIA. (2012). Retrieved 19 October 2019, from http://www.bccdc.ca/resource-gallery/Documents/Training%20and%20Events/EH/FPS/Deirdre_MonitoringPrograms.pdf