Evolution and distribution of saxitoxin biosynthesis in dinoflagellates

Mar Drugs. 2013 Aug 8;11(8):2814-28. doi: 10.3390/md11082814.


Numerous species of marine dinoflagellates synthesize the potent environmental neurotoxic alkaloid, saxitoxin, the agent of the human illness, paralytic shellfish poisoning. In addition, certain freshwater species of cyanobacteria also synthesize the same toxic compound, with the biosynthetic pathway and genes responsible being recently reported. Three theories have been postulated to explain the origin of saxitoxin in dinoflagellates: The production of saxitoxin by co-cultured bacteria rather than the dinoflagellates themselves, convergent evolution within both dinoflagellates and bacteria and horizontal gene transfer between dinoflagellates and bacteria. The discovery of cyanobacterial saxitoxin homologs in dinoflagellates has enabled us for the first time to evaluate these theories. Here, we review the distribution of saxitoxin within the dinoflagellates and our knowledge of its genetic basis to determine the likely evolutionary origins of this potent neurotoxin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cyanobacteria / genetics
  • Cyanobacteria / metabolism
  • Dinoflagellida / genetics
  • Dinoflagellida / metabolism*
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal
  • Humans
  • Neurotoxins / biosynthesis*
  • Neurotoxins / genetics
  • Neurotoxins / toxicity
  • Saxitoxin / biosynthesis*
  • Saxitoxin / genetics
  • Saxitoxin / toxicity
  • Shellfish Poisoning / etiology


  • Neurotoxins
  • Saxitoxin