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Business Growth
Mar 18, 2016

UNCW-Developed Test Promotes Seafood Safety, May Fight Lionfish

Sponsored Content provided by Daniel G. Baden - Executive Principal, Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONC)

Guarding against toxicity in fish that’s sold for human consumption and battling a dangerous invasive species may seem to have little in common. But in fact, a novel diagnostic test developed by researchers at the MARBIONC Center is proving useful in addressing both challenges.
This story is an example of how basic research done by university scientists, with help from a federal agency, is being developed into a commercial product by one of our partner companies. That work is then put to use to solve several health, economic and environmental problems.
The villains are ciguatera, a form of food poisoning caused by a toxic algae; and lionfish, an attractive but seriously disruptive interloper in the Atlantic Ocean’s marine environment.
Ciguatera fish poisoning is a disease estimated to affect 50,000 people a year, mainly in tropical regions of the Caribbean and Pacific. Worldwide it is the most common cause of non-bacterial seafood poisoning. Ciguatera results from eating fish containing potent neurotoxins known as ciguatoxins. These are produced by microscopic algae and steadily accumulate in marine animals, reaching their highest concentrations in top predators, including commercial fish species such as grouper, snapper, barracuda and amberjack.
The symptoms of ciguatera poisoning include mild to severe gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and neurological problems. One symptom that’s often used to diagnose this condition is altered temperature perception, where hot objects feel cold and cold items feel hot. Some patients also report recurring symptoms, similar to multiple sclerosis, for up to 20 years.
Improved detection of toxins in marketable seafood is imperative to protect human health. A recent study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, highlights a new analytical product that was jointly developed by UNCW, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and SeaTox Research, a private company. The test’s purpose is to detect ciguatoxins in fish. Current detection methods for ciguatoxin include a test using radioactive isotopes. However, due to license requirements and regulations governing radioisotopes, this detection technique can’t be used in many areas. The study developed a technique that uses fluorescence – certain substances’ property of glowing under ultraviolet light – to detect ciguatoxins in commercial fish species. This new method achieves the same results as the radioisotope test; a third test, which cell-based, also is used to detect ciguatoxins.
The new test, by improving detection capabilities in areas where the radioisotope methods are unavailable, shows promise in improving human health and seafood safety.
The fluorescence test is being used to determine the relative toxicity of Caribbean fish including lionfish, a troublesome invasive species in the Atlantic coastal waters of the United States. These popular aquarium species are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but have become established in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and off the southeastern Atlantic coast, including North Carolina’s waters. They are notorious for their poisonous spines, which when touched inject a toxin that causes painful symptoms. They have few predators in the Atlantic, and they feed on the young of commercially important species such as snapper and grouper, causing ecological and potential economic damage.
One viable method for control is to establish lionfish themselves as a commercial fishery (see more at A key to this strategy is determining whether, despite the poisons in their spines, their meat is safe to eat. If lionfish are no more toxic than fish commonly consumed without adverse effects, then recreational and commercial fishing can be used as an effective control mechanism.
This study helped propel the commercialization of a test kit provided by SeaTox Research, a small business located at the UNCW MARBIONC incubator.
In relating this story, I’m grateful to Wayne Litaker, Ph.D., and his group at NOAA, especially Rance Hardison, Ph.D. Hardison was primary author of the PLOS ONE article, titled “Fluorescent Receptor Binding Assay for Detecting Ciguatoxins in Fish.”
UNCW CREST Research Park is a front-runner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.

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