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Fish study backs N.C. scientist

NORTH CAROLINA - Pfiesteria can become a killing organism, chemist says.

JoAnn Burkholder in her lab in 2002. She has had to defend her work on Pfiesteria in light of other studies.

The poison produced by a controversial marine microbe that shut down North Carolina and Maryland waters in the mid-1990s has been identified, bolstering claims by an N.C. State University scientist that the organism is toxic.

After nine years of study, The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday that two species of Pfiesteria transform from harmless microbes into "toxic organisms that can cause estuarine fish kills."

The work could substantially vindicate NCSU ecologist JoAnn Burkholder, who helped discover the sometimes plant, sometimes animal in North Carolina waters in 1989. Burkholder and others blamed Pfiesteria for killing more than a billion fish in North Carolina estuary waters and in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1990s. She and others also argued that Pfiesteria endangers human health.

Burkholder's research has been divisive. Critics faulted her complicated early descriptions of the Pfiesteria (pronounced fis-TEAR-e-ah) life cycle and voiced repeated doubts that it spewed poison to attack fish prey.

The NOAA research, produced by chemist Peter Moeller, identifies a fleeting venom that Pfiesteria produce. Burkholder said it should put an end to much of the criticism against her.

"The past nine or 10 years have been difficult. I really would not have wanted to live them. But this is a great day," said the NCSU ecologist, long a hero to environmentalists and a hysteric to detractors in public health and science.

Burkholder critic Wolfgang Vogelbein remained skeptical Thursday that the toxic material plays an important role in the wild. The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences researcher and others, including a NOAA microbiologist, have published conclusions that Pfiesteria kills fish by attacking them directly, and they blame mold for producing sores on fish in pfiesteria-tainted waters.

Source: The News & Observer

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