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Cyanobacteria ("blue-green algae") produce toxin with possible connection to neurodegerative disorders


It is well known that a tiny number of cyanobacteria, previously known as blue-green algae, produce substances that can be toxic to both humans and animals. Now a research team from Sweden, Scotland, and the U.S. has found that a further toxin (BMAA, -methyl amino-alanine) with a possible connection to degenerative nerve diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s is produced by cyanobacteria that are widespread around the world.

The findings are reported in the new issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (PNAS) in the U.S. Swedish collaborators in the project are Professor Birgitta Bergman and Associate Professor Ulla Rasmussen at the Department of Botany, Stockholm University.

The connection between BMAA and these disorders has been intensively studied over the years on the Pacific island of Guam, where the incidence following World War II has been 50-100 times higher than elsewhere in the world. Previously scientists thought that BMAA was produced only by cone palm trees, which are extremely common in that part of the world and have sometimes been used as food. High levels of BMAA have been found in the brains of disease victims in Guam, but since BMAA has recently been discovered in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients in Canada, the hunt for the sources of the BMAA toxin has been intensified.

Recently Paul Cox and his associates in the U.S. showed that BMAA is produced by a cyanobacterium that lives in the roots of the cone palm rather than in the plant itself. A research team then undertook a study of the prevalence of BMAA in cyanobacteria gathered from all over the world. It was found that more than 90 percent of all cyanobacteria studied (living freely or in symbiosis with plants) produce BMAA. Since cyanobacteria are extremely common in soil, waters, and seas and are counted among the first organisms to appear on earth, this discovery may be of both evolutionary and ecological significance. Since global warming is expected to stimulate the massive production of cyanobacteria in the oceans and the Baltic Sea, for instance, it is now essential to determine the prevalence in our environment and the possible health risks of BMAA. Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm have launched a research project designed to study the connection between BMAA and neurodegenerative disorders.

Agneta Paulsson | alfa
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