(September 12, 2017) --

The use of passive samplers in monitoring in situ toxin profiles has proved useful in the identification of novel algal metabolites. University of South Alabama PhD student, Grant Lockridge, deploys solid phase adsorption toxin tracking samplers on northern Gulf of Mexico platforms. (Photo: Caitlin Wessel, Marine Sciences Department, University of South Alabama)

University of South Alabama Department of Marine Sciences and Dauphin Island Sea Lab faculty member Dr. Alison Robertson will be the lead investigator on one of 14 new Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) awards. The National Science Foundation announced the award recipients on Tuesday, September 12. 

The project, entitled "PIRE: Advancing Global Strategies and Understanding on the Origin of Ciguatera Fish Poisoning in Tropical Oceans," gathers a team of educators and scientists from the United States, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Cuba, Norway, and the United Kingdom. 

"By linking together researchers from around the world, PIRE allows us to leverage U.S. dollars and improve scientific outcomes," said Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE), which manages PIRE. "These rich partnerships tackle some of today's most pressing research questions, from new materials to marine sciences."

“We have assembled an incredible team of scientists from around the United States and the globe to work together on this project so we are all excited about the opportunity and synergistic research that we will pursue,” Dr. Robertson said. “Each investigator involved brings a unique expertise and perspective such that we can approach this important public health issue in a manner that has never been possible before.”

Molecular identification of dinoflagellates associated with ciguatera is an important element in understanding toxigenesis in reef ecosystems. Mindy Richlen and Evie Fachon prepare samples collected at remote field sites by collaborators for sequencing at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. (Photo: David Kulis, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)

The project under the direction of Dr. Robertson will investigate the threat to coral reef ecosystems by ciguatera fish poisoning, the most common nonbacterial seafood illness. This project will extend understanding of the environmental conditions affecting the production of ciguatoxins, and determine the fate of the toxins through the food web across geographical regions.

Despite its severity and prevalence, CFP remains an underappreciated and under-reported problem. Most CFP affects low socioeconomic groups in remote island communities who rely on local seafood for subsistence. However, fish poisonings from recreational fishing and the international seafood trade are increasing in continental areas which is increasing exposure in temperate regions. 

A major goal of this PIRE project will be to better understand the environmental conditions affecting the production of CTXs by the source organisms and to determine the fate of the toxins through the food web across geographical regions. 

Dr. Robertson added, “The PIRE program also allows us the opportunity to build a rich educational experience with field and laboratory activities for students from middle school to undergraduate and graduate programs. We hope to foster unique and lasting educational experiences for students that will develop the next generation of scientists in the marine environmental sciences."

Scientists and traditional owners sampling in intertidal pools, Kimberley region, Western Australia (Photo: Kathryn McMahon, Edith Cowan University Australia)

Institution partners include: University of South Alabama, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Florida Gulf Coast University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of the Virgin Islands, University of Texas-Austin Marine Sciences Institute, Center for Environmental Studies of Cienfuegos, Cuba, Norwegian Veterinary Institute, University of Oslo, Norway, City University of Hong Kong, China, Heriot-Watt university in the United Kingdom, Center for Marine Ecosystems Research, Australia, and National Research Council, Canada.   

“We are incredibly grateful for the funding and opportunity to build this international partnership and to make strides in our understanding of ciguatera in the face of global climate disturbances,” Dr. Robertson said. 

NSF has a long history of fostering and supporting international relationships to address critical science and engineering (S&E) questions. Since its inception in 2005, the PIRE program has accelerated scientific discovery and enhanced the U.S. science and technology workforce by leveraging investments from foreign governments that also provide funding to these collaborative projects.

PIRE supports fundamental, international research and education in physical, living, human and engineered systems. As the focal point for international collaboration across NSF, OISE, which funds the U.S. portion of the international collaboration, catalyzes global S&E activities and builds effective partnership throughout the international S&E research and education community.