- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Five years after the toxic marine algae plagued the Eastern Seaboard, the North Carolina State University researcher who helped discover Pfiesteria is facing doubts about its threat to humans.
Since June, three scientific journals have published articles indirectly suggesting that N.C. State scientist JoAnn Burkholder's work on Pfiesteria was flawed.
Now, she is fighting back.
"I see this as an attack on one lab in particular," said Miss Burkholder, who co-discovered Pfiesteria. "They talk about 'the Burkholder group,' even though there are multiple labs conducting this science."
Miss Burkholder first reported in 1990 that Pfiesteria was dangerous to fish and humans. She said pollution from human sewage and hog waste encouraged Pfiesteria's fish-killing activity.
Her research was widely publicized and was featured prominently in a 1997 book called "And the Waters Turned to Blood." When Pfiesteria bloomed in the Chesapeake Bay that summer, some complained of memory loss and other problems.
Environmentalists heralded her as a hero. North Carolina officials apologized for state health experts who along with fishermen and farmers had criticized Miss Burkholder's work. The state legislature appropriated money for a well-appointed lab.
The three new research papers challenge some of Miss Burkholder's fundamental scientific claims about Pfiesteria. The authors also complain that she is not making her Pfiesteria strains available for others to test.
A research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others reported in the Journal of Phycology that DNA tests contradicted Miss Burkholder's claim that Pfiesteria has a complex life cycle that passes 24 stages.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the University of Florida and the University of Virginia reported that they did not find any toxin in Pfiesteria samples, nor any evidence of a gene often linked to toxins.
A report in the journal Nature also said researchers did not find any traces of toxin and argued that the microbe's biggest threat is its ability to feed on fish.
The lead author of the Nature report said the conclusions were not a critique of Miss Burkholder's science.
"That's not the point," said Wolfgang Vogelbein of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "It's possible Dr. Burkholder and her colleagues work with strains different than ours. It's also possible that this new mechanism has been missed by the other labs."
Miss Burkholder and scientists supporting her want the three journals that published the dissenting papers this summer to publish critiques of those papers.
Miss Burkholder said the authors didn't acknowledge that more than 20 labs have corroborated her findings, including one at Old Dominion University that published a paper in August confirming a fish-killing toxin in Pfiesteria cultures.
Duke University toxicologist Ed Levin has shown that the chemical causes learning impairment in rats.
Scientists with the National Ocean Service, a division of NOAA, also say they are inching toward describing the chemical structure of a Pfiesteria toxin.
Miss Burkholder said she believes the authors of this summer's papers either unknowingly used a nontoxic strain of Pfiesteria or couldn't nudge a toxic strain to make toxin.
Much of this new debate could be settled if Miss Burkholder would freely share her Pfiesteria lab samples, Mr. Vogelbein said.
Miss Burkholder said she has delivered samples to 41 scientists in 33 labs, but a limited supply and high costs have forced her to limit sharing.
While she has collected $5 million in funding to study Pfiesteria since 1997, that is not enough to cover her costs for providing limitless samples, she said. She has also refused to deposit her toxic Pfiesteria samples in a public repository because she believes they are dangerous.
Miss Burkholder said she would consider collaborating on new studies on toxic Pfiesteria strains with some labs that disagree with her findings. But she stressed that she reserves the right not to work with some scientists.


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