Production of the neurotoxin BMAA by a marine cyanobacterium

Mar Drugs. 2007 Dec 6;5(4):180-96. doi: 10.3390/md504180.


Diverse species of cyanobacteria have recently been discovered to produce the neurotoxic non-protein amino acid beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA). In Guam, BMAA has been studied as a possible environmental toxin in the diets of indigenous Chamorro people known to have high levels of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis/ Parkinsonism Dementia Complex (ALS/PDC). BMAA has been found to accumulate in brain tissues of patients with progressive neurodegenerative illness in North America. In Guam, BMAA was found to be produced by endosymbiotic cyanobacteria of the genus Nostoc which live in specialized cycad roots. We here report detection of BMAA in laboratory cultures of a free-living marine species of Nostoc. We successfully detected BMAA in this marine species of Nostoc with five different methods: HPLC-FD, UPLC-UV, Amino Acid Analyzer, LC/MS, and Triple Quadrupole LC/MS/MS. This consensus of five different analytical methods unequivocally demonstrates the presence of BMAA in this marine cyanobacterium. Since protein-associated BMAA can accumulate in increasing levels within food chains, it is possible that biomagnification of BMAA could occur in marine ecosystems similar to the biomagnification of BMAA in terrestrial ecosystems. Production of BMAA by marine cyanobacteria may represent another route of human exposure to BMAA. Since BMAA at low concentrations causes the death of motor neurons, low levels of BMAA exposure may trigger motor neuron disease in genetically vulnerable individuals.

Keywords: ALS/PDC; LC/MS/MS; Nostoc; biomagnification; motor neuron disease.