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In recent years, as toxic algal blooms have increased in incidence, strength and duration worldwide, poisoning outbreaks linked to contaminated seafood have inflicted enormous economic damage. The exact causes of the blooms are unknown, though coastal water pollution is a major suspect. The biotoxins they produce can cause severe neuronal and gastrointestinal disorders and allergies. As part of its effort to protect the food chain, the European Union is seeking new cost-effective, fast and sensitive tests to detect toxins in seafood, as well as in human sera. The BIOTOXmarin STREP has brought together eight partners from five EU countries to develop such tools, which could be used on ships, in harbour or market, or in clinics.


Contaminated seafood causes four main types of poisoning. Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) is life-threatening, with neurological symptoms and rapid onset. Neurotoxic shellfish poisoning (NSP) has neurological, gastrointestinal and asthma-like symptoms. The potentially life-threatening effects of amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, as well as neurological symptoms. Diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) induces severe diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and shivers, but is usually not fatal.

The toxins causing ASP, DSP and PSP are found in European waters, while NSP toxins are found in imported shellfish. Scientists have isolated several substances from unicellular dinoflagellates responsible for toxic algal blooms and determined their chemical structures. For example, saxitoxin and its 18 derivatives, responsible for PSP, have been found in various dinoflagellates. The DSP toxin okadaic acid, produced by the marine dinoflagellate Prorocentrum lima, can induce apoptosis in human cells. Ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) toxins are found in tropical fish meat and are only partly understood.


Toxins in seafood are usually detected by mouse bioassay, a method hampered by low reproducibility and sensitivity. During its three-year programme, the BIOTOXmarin team will develop detection tools based on 'PolymerInstruction' technology and highly sensitive integrated optical grating coupler (IOGC) biosensor technology. It will employ high-affinity capture antibodies and novel artificial receptor mimics for sensitive ELISA and Western blotting techniques based on infrared-fluorescence imaging.

Some participants have already raised antibodies against okadaic acid, and this promising strategy will be extended to toxins causing PSP, NSP, or ASP. The team will develop easy-to-use point-of-care (POCT) chip and dip-stick/card test assay methods, as well as bioassays based on an interaction of okadaic acid with phosphoprotein phosphatase 2A or the activation/phosphorylation of MAP kinase p38. The scientists will validate test kits using samples from contaminated shellfish or sera from human patients. The tools will be integrated in a traceability system. Finally, BIOTOXmarin's SME partners will manufacture prototype chips, sensor devices and test stripes, and establish a marketing strategy.


BIOTOXmarin's chief accomplishment will be new tools to ensure high-quality and safe seafood. The project will help identify potential human causes of toxic algal blooms, providing data and tools to support Union legislation and other EU research projects aimed at protecting the food chain and environment. The new tools will permit the replacement of animal-based tests with non-animal tests. The availability of easy-touse, fast and sensitive methods for detecting marine biotoxins will strengthen the EU's competitiveness in the rapidly growing area of aquaculture of mussels, oysters and other shellfish.

List of Partners

  • Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz (Germany)
  • Universitā degli Studi di Napoli, Federico II (Italy)
  • instrAction GmbH (Germany)
  • Diagnostic Science and Technology GmbH (Germany)
  • Université de Bretagne Occidentale (France)
  • BIOTECmarin GmbH (Germany)
  • INTEGRIN Advanced Biosystems (UK)
  • Micro Vacuum (Hungary)
Full title:
Development of novel analytic tools for the detection of marine biotoxins
Contract n°:
Project co-ordinator:
Heinz C. Schröder, Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz,
EC Scientific Officer:
Maria Spulber,
EU contribution:
€ 1.3M
Specific Targeted Research Project

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top