Emerging harmful algal blooms caused by distinct seasonal assemblages of a toxic diatom

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Diatoms in the Pseudo-nitzschia genus produce the neurotoxin domoic acid. Domoic acid bioaccumulates in shellfish, causing illness in humans and marine animals upon ingestion. In 2017, high domoic acid levels in shellfish meat closed shellfish harvest in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island for the first and only time in history, although abundant Pseudo-nitzschia have been observed for over 60 years. To investigate whether an environmental factor altered endemic Pseudo-nitzschia physiology or new domoic acid-producing strain(s) were introduced to Narragansett Bay, we conducted weekly sampling from 2017 to 2019 and compared closure samples. Plankton-associated domoic acid was quantified by LC-MS/MS and Pseudo-nitzschia spp. were identified using a taxonomically improved high-throughput rDNA sequencing approach. Comparison with environmental data revealed a detailed understanding of domoic acid dynamics and seasonal multi-species assemblages. Plankton-associated domoic acid was low throughout 2017–2019, but recurred in fall and early summer maxima. Fall domoic acid maxima contained known toxic species as well as a novel Pseudo-nitzschia genotype. Summer domoic acid maxima included fewer species but also known toxin producers. Most 2017 closure samples contained the particularly concerning toxic species, P. australis, which also appeared infrequently during 2017–2019. Recurring Pseudo-nitzschia assemblages were driven by seasonal temperature changes, and plankton-associated domoic acid correlated with low dissolved inorganic nitrogen. Thus, the Narragansett Bay closures were likely caused by both resident assemblages that become toxic depending on nutrient status as well as the episodic introductions of toxic species from oceanographic and climatic shifts.

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Limnology and Oceanography