The Viva Vine: vol #6, no #3: May / June 1997

Eco-disruption: Fish killer with a multi-personality

by Pamela Rice

It could have been just another sediment-dwelling microorganism lying dormant, unknown and harmless, in estuarine waters for 10 million years. But no. Modern hog farming changed all that: Harmlessness became harmfulness. Soon this one-celled critter, drunk with spilled or runoff nutrient-rich hog manure, was heard to stutter: "It's time to party!"

A triumph of evolution or the advent of environmental Armageddon

Depending upon your perspective, Pfiesteria piscimortuis--the second name meaning "fish killer"--is either a triumph of evolution or the advent of environmental Armageddon. In stealth and deadliness, it puts both James Bond and the Terminator to shame. Douse it with bleach or sulfuric acid, dry it out, deprive it of food for several years--these things don't kill it. All you can hope for is to return the little monster back to dormancy and harmlessness. To do that, you must take away the things that it loves: sewage and waters rich in algae and nutrients, particularly phosphorus.

In the wake of numerous hog-manure spills, fish up and down the Atlantic shoreline have been killed by this venomous cell from hell--at least half a billion in North Carolina alone. Dead fish have regularly had to be bulldozed off beaches.

Killer microbe: Mysterious and vicious organism displaying "multiple personalities"

Pfiesteria piscimortuis, or just Pfiesteria for short, was discovered in 1988, one of many new toxic microorganisms polluting U.S. waters since the Reagan years. This one, however, is incredibly versatile, manifesting itself in 24 known forms--personalities, you might say. First a plant, then an animal, it leaves nothing to chance. No fish will survive its tactical abilities. When Pfiesteria detects fish, it may masquerade as a harmless alga, fooling its prey into coming close. At this point, it will transform itself into a toxic dual flagellated vegetative cell. Blast. Prey is zapped by Pfiesteria's toxic secretions, which leave it disoriented, defenseless and soon flayed. Then the Pfiesteria cell transforms itself again into a large and hungry amoeba, sucking away its victim's flesh through a straw-like arm, reproducing while it eats. The eating process releases organic matter into the water, attracting more hungry Pfiesteria. Fish, so attacked, are left with large sores on their bodies.

Exposure to Pfiesteria is no less horrible for humans, causing acute memory loss and irritability. Divers and fishermen have reported grotesque sores on their bodies--similar to those that were found on exposed fish--after coming in contact with Pfiesteria-contaminated waters.

Incredible as this all is, it's a story that many people could have missed, as it played nationally for only a short time in March, after a book about the microorganism came out. The book, And the Waters Turned to Blood, by Rodney Barker, explained the nature of Pfiesteria; but more than this, it told of a cover-up by local bureaucrats protecting

their own turf while looking after hog- and tourist-industry interests.

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