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Could an Algal Toxin Cause Motor Neurone Disease?

Could an Algal Toxin Cause Motor Neurone Disease?

By Rachael Dunlop

It’s long been thought that blue-green algae might cause several brain diseases. Now a missing piece in the puzzle has been found.

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Four years ago my supervisor, Dr Ken Rodgers, called me to a meeting. An ethnobotanist from the US was in town and he wanted to meet us. He’d read one of our papers and had an idea for a collaboration.

I’m what is known as a basic scientist, which means that I stand at a bench and poke cells with stuff to see how they might react. I don’t work with patients or with animal models. But years of training and poking have sharpened my skills, and what I do know back-to-front is how cells work.

So when Dr Paul Cox came to us with a neurotoxic compound found in blue-green algae (BGA) and asked us how we thought it could contribute to motor neurone disease (MND), we had an idea straight away.

Four years later the headlines read: “Scientists discover potential cause of MND”. So what happened in between?

What’s Blue-Green Algae?

Most of us would know BGA, or cyanobacteria, as a green carpet that forms on lakes and rivers. Cyanobacteria are about 3.5 billion years old as a species and have adapted to grow in fresh, salt and brackish water, in dirt, in the thermal ponds of Yellowstone National Park, and in the deserts crusts of the Middle East. Mats of cyanobacteria even cover the surface of the Inland Sea in Qatar. The oldest and most famous BGA stromatolites in the world are located in Western Australia’s Shark Bay, where they have World...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.