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“Cell From Hell” Occurring On World Coastlines


By James Donahue

September 2004


They are called red tides, also known as algae blooms. When they occur in polluted waters, often at the mouth of large rivers, the water turns red and the fish and other living creatures within the bloom quickly die.


The culprit is pfiesteria, a tiny living toxic producing creature once dubbed the “cell from hell” because of its strange characteristic. Neither plant nor animal, it can reproduce into large populations that turn aggressive and feed on fish and other species, including man.


Red blooms have plagued swimmers, fishermen and farmers along the east and Gulf Coasts of the United States in recent years. They also occur in other areas of the world. This summer China reports two giant blooms, one at the mouth of the Yellow River in Northern China, the other off the City of Tianjin.


China, like other nations of the world, relies on its fishing industry to help feed its people. During a red tide, the seafood produced in that area of the sea cannot be eaten. That is because pfiesteria, in the form of diatoms and dinoflagellates, are attacking the fish. Mussels and other shellfish that feed on these creatures seem to be immune. But they cause major fish kills. If the infected sea life is consumed by a human, the attack continues within the body of the person that eats it.


The effect is severe and sometimes lethal. The victim can experience gastrointestinal problems, dizziness, confusion, memory loss and sometimes paralysis. The toxins are colorless, difficult to detect, and they survive the heat of cooking.


Pfiesteria has been called algae or phytoplankton because it is a tiny life form that imitates plankton, the minute life that carpets the oceans. Plankton is considered the bottom of the ocean’s food chain. Sea creatures feed on it.


Pfiesteria has been around for thousands of years. The Old Testament Book of Exodus describes an Egyptian plague that turned the water into “blood” and killed the fish. But the critter has only been identified in recent years because of the red blooms that began occurring.


New England recorded its first red tide in 1972. It had a severe effect on the cellfish industry. A major bloom off the coast of Florida caused extensive deaths of the manatee there in 1996.


These creatures assume 24-stage life cycles, sometimes assuming the role of a plant, complete with the ability of photosynthesis. At other stages pfiesteria acts more like an animal, with the ability to swim and feed on larger creatures. At that time it swims freely, powered by two flagella. Thus the name dinoflagellate.


The dinoflagellates that cause the red tides behave more like plants. The pigments used in photosynthesis tints the water red during a bloom. Another effect of the bloom, by large populations of dinoflagellates is airborne toxins that sting the noses and throats of anyone in the vicinity.


The phenomenon of massive red tides or blooms appears to be directly related to environmental pollution and overpopulation. Studies of the various blooms (not all of them red) have shown links to high levels of farm fertilizer, animal wastes, nitrates and phosphorus from these and other chemical dumping in rivers and lakes.


Some of the toxins appear to respond to other chemicals. The Seto Inland Sea of Japan experienced a number of red tides after sewage and effluent controls were used in the area.


Other tides have been brought on, some scientists believe, by a warming of ocean waters and a direct result of global warming. Dams and the practice of using water for ship ballast also seem to produce exotic microorganisms in unnatural areas, studies have found.