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Lake Erie in October 2011, during an intense cyanobacteria bloom. [1][2]

Microcystins — or cyanoginosins — are a class of toxins[3] produced by certain freshwater cyanobacteria; primarily Microcystis aeruginosa but also other Microcystis, as well as members of the Planktothrix, Anabaena, Oscillatoria and Nostoc genera. Over 50 different microcystins have been discovered so far, of which microcystin-LR is the most common. Chemically they are cyclic heptapeptides produced through nonribosomal peptide synthases.[4]

Microcystins can be produced in large quantities during algal blooms and pose a major threat to drinking and irrigation water supplies, as well as the environment at large.[5][6]


Chemical structure of microcystin-LR

Microcystin-LR is the most toxic form of over 80 known toxic variants, and is also the most studied by chemists, pharmacologists, biologists, and ecologists. Microcystin-containing 'blooms' are a problem worldwide, including China, Brazil, Australia, South Africa,[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15] the United States and much of Europe. Hartebeespoort Dam in South Africa is one of the most contaminated sites in Africa, and possibly in the world.

Microcystins contain several uncommon non-proteinogenic amino acids such as dehydroalanine derivatives and the uncommon β-amino acid ADDA. Microcystins covalently bond to and inhibit protein phosphatases PP1 and PP2A and can thus cause pansteatitis.[16]


Microcystins are hepatotoxic (able to cause serious damage to the liver). Once ingested, microcystin travels to the liver, via the bile acid transport system, where most is stored; though some remains in the blood stream and may contaminate tissue.[17][18] There appears to be inadequate information to assess the carcinogenic potential of microcystins by applying EPA Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment. A few studies suggest a relationship may exist between liver and colorectral cancers and the occurrence of cyanobacteria in drinking water in China.[19][20][21][22][23][24] Evidence is, however, limited due to limited ability to accurately assess and measure exposure.

The impact of exposure to microcystin by patients with a compromised immune system is not yet fully known, but is starting to raise some concern.[25]


A culture of M. aeruginosa, a photosynthesizing bacterium

The microcystin-producing Microcystis is a genus of freshwater cyanobacteria and is projected to thrive with warmer climate conditions, such as the rise of water temperatures or in stagnant waters, and through the process of eutrophication (oversupply of nutrients).[6] An Ohio state task force found that Lake Erie received more phosphorus than any other Great Lake, both from crop land, due to the farming practices, and from urban water-treatment centres.[26] Evidence developed at the University of Heidelberg suggests that in particular dissolved reactive phosphorus promotes additional growth.[26]


Microcystin-producing bacteria blooms can overwhelm the filter capacities of water treatment plants. Some evidence shows the toxin can be transported by irrigation into the food chain,[27][28] Microcystins are chemically stable over a wide range of temperature and pH, possibly as a result of their cyclic structure. Due to their cyclic nature they cannot be broken down by standard proteases like pepsin, trypsin, collagenase, and chymotrypsin.[29]

Cyanobacteria blooms[edit]

A study concluded in 2009 that climate change can act as a catalyst for global expansion of harmful cyanobacterial blooms.[5] The EPA reported in 2013, that changing environmental conditions such as harmful algae growth is associated with current climate change, and may negatively impact the environment, human health, and the economy for communities across the US and around the world.[30]

Lake Erie blooms[edit]

A record outbreak of blooming microcystis occurred in Lake Erie 2011, in part related to the wettest spring on record, and expanded lake bottom dead zones, reduced fish populations, fouled beaches, and the local tourism industry that generates more than $10 billion in revenue annually.[1]

On 2 August 2014, the City of Toledo, Ohio detected higher levels of microcystin than deemed safe in its water supply due to harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes. They issued a DO NOT DRINK OR BOIL water advisory to approximately 500,000 people.[31][32] Algal blooms have been occurring more frequently, and scientists had predicted this significant bloom of blue-green algae to peak in early September.[33][34]

San Francisco Bay Area[edit]

Microcystin has been found in San Francisco Bay Area shellfish in seawater, apparently from freshwater runoff, exacerbated by drought.[35]


Both green tea[36][37] and sulforaphane[38] have been shown to have a protective effect against microcystin induced toxicity.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Michael Wines (March 14, 2013). "Spring Rain, Then Foul Algae in Ailing Lake Erie". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Joanna M. Foster (November 20, 2013). "Lake Erie is Dying Again, and Warmer Waters and Wetter Weather are to Blame". ClimateProgress.
  3. ^ Dawson, R.M (1998). "the toxicology of microcystins". Toxicon. 36 (7): 953–962. doi:10.1016/S0041-0101(97)00102-5.
  4. ^ Ramsy Agha, Samuel Cirés, Lars Wörmer and Antonio Quesada (2013). "Limited Stability of Microcystins in Oligopeptide Compositions of Microcystis aeruginosa (Cyanobacteria): Implications in the Definition of Chemotypes". Toxins. 5 (6): 1089–1104. doi:10.3390/toxins5061089. PMC 3717771. PMID 23744054.
  5. ^ a b Paerl HW, Huisman J (February 2009). "Climate change: a catalyst for global expansion of harmful cyanobacterial blooms". Environmental Microbiology Reports. 1 (1): 27–37. doi:10.1111/j.1758-2229.2008.00004.x. PMID 23765717.
  6. ^ a b "Increasing toxicity of algal blooms tied to nutrient enrichment and climate change". Oregon State University. October 24, 2013.
  7. ^ Bradshaw D, Groenewald P, Laubscher R, Nannan N, Nojilana B, Norman B, Pieterse D, Schneider M (2003). Initial Burden of Disease Estimates for South Africa, 2000 (PDF). Cape Town: South African Medical Research Council. ISBN 978-1-919809-64-9.[page needed]
  8. ^ Fatoki, O.S., Muyima, N.Y.O. & Lujiza, N. 2001. Situation analysis of water quality in the Umtata River Catchment. Water SA, (27) Pp 467-474.
  9. ^ Oberholster PJ, Botha AM, Grobbelaar JU (2004). "Microcystis aeruginosa: Source of toxic microcystins in drinking water". Africa Journal of Biotechnology. 3: 159–68.
  10. ^ Oberholster PJ, Botha AM, Cloete TE (2005). "An overview of toxic freshwater cyanobacteria in South Africa with special reference to risk, impact, and detection by molecular marker tools". Biokemistri. 17 (2): 57–71. doi:10.4314/biokem.v17i2.32590.
  11. ^ Oberholster PJ, Botha AM (2007). "Use of PCR based technologies for risk assessment of a winter cyanobacterial bloom in Lake Midmar, South Africa". African Journal of Biotechnology. 6 (15): 14–21.
  12. ^ Oberholster, P. 2008. Parliamentary Briefing Paper on Cyanobacteria in Water Resources of South Africa. Annexure "A" of CSIR Report No. CSIR/NRE/WR/IR/2008/0079/C. Pretoria. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
  13. ^ Oberholster, P.J.; Cloete, T.E.; van Ginkel, C.; Botha, A-M.; Ashton, P.J. (2008). "The use of remote sensing and molecular markers as early warning indicators of the development of cyanobacterial hyperscum crust and microcystin-producing genotypes in the hypertrophic Lake Hartebeespoort, South Africa" (PDF). Pretoria: Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-11.
  14. ^ Oberholster, P.J.; Ashton, P.J. (2008). "State of the Nation Report: An Overview of the Current Status of Water Quality and Eutrophication in South African Rivers and Reservoirs" (PDF). Pretoria: Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-08.
  15. ^ Turton, A.R. 2015. Water Pollution and South Africa’s Poor. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations. http://irr.org.za/reports-and-publications/occasional-reports/files/water-pollution-and-south-africas-poor
  16. ^ http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/health/rattner/rattner_blackwaternwr.cfm[full citation needed]
  17. ^ Falconer, Ian R. (1998). "Algal Toxins and Human Health". In Hrubec, Jiři. Quality and Treatment of Drinking Water II. The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry. 5 / 5C. pp. 53–82. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-68089-5_4. ISBN 978-3-662-14774-0.
  18. ^ Falconer, I.R. 2005. Cyanobacterial Toxins of Drinking Water Supplies: Cylindrospermopsins and Microcystins. Florida: CRC Press. 279 pages.[page needed]
  19. ^ Humpage AR, Hardy SJ, Moore EJ, Froscio SM, Falconer IR (October 2000). "Microcystins (cyanobacterial toxins) in drinking water enhance the growth of aberrant crypt foci in the mouse colon". Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A. 61 (3): 155–65. doi:10.1080/00984100050131305. PMID 11036504.
  20. ^ Ito E, Kondo F, Terao K, Harada K (September 1997). "Neoplastic nodular formation in mouse liver induced by repeated intraperitoneal injections of microcystin-LR". Toxicon. 35 (9): 1453–7. doi:10.1016/S0041-0101(97)00026-3. PMID 9403968.
  21. ^ Nishiwaki-Matsushima R, Nishiwaki S, Ohta T, et al. (September 1991). "Structure-function relationships of microcystins, liver tumor promoters, in interaction with protein phosphatase". Japanese Journal of Cancer Research. 82 (9): 993–6. doi:10.1111/j.1349-7006.1991.tb01933.x. PMC 5918597. PMID 1657848.
  22. ^ Ueno Y, Nagata S, Tsutsumi T, et al. (June 1996). "Detection of microcystins, a blue-green algal hepatotoxin, in drinking water sampled in Haimen and Fusui, endemic areas of primary liver cancer in China, by highly sensitive immunoassay". Carcinogenesis. 17 (6): 1317–21. doi:10.1093/carcin/17.6.1317. PMID 8681449.
  23. ^ Yu S-Z (1989). "Drinking water and primary liver cancer". In Z.Y. Tang; M.C. Wu; S.S. Xia. Primary Liver Cancer. New York: China Academic Publishers. pp. 30–7. ISBN 978-0-387-50228-1.
  24. ^ Zhou L, Yu H, Chen K (June 2002). "Relationship between microcystin in drinking water and colorectal cancer". Biomedical and Environmental Sciences. 15 (2): 166–71. PMID 12244757.
  25. ^ Doyle P. (1991). The Impact of AIDS on the South African Population. AIDS in South Africa: The Demographics and Economic Implications. Centre for Health Policy, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
  26. ^ a b Suzanne Goldenberg (August 3, 2014). "Farming practices and climate change at root of Toledo water pollution". The Guardian.
  27. ^ Codd GA, Metcalf JS, Beattie KA (August 1999). "Retention of Microcystis aeruginosa and microcystin by salad lettuce (Lactuca sativa) after spray irrigation with water containing cyanobacteria". Toxicon. 37 (8): 1181–5. doi:10.1016/S0041-0101(98)00244-X. PMID 10400301.
  28. ^ Abe, Toshihiko; Lawson, Tracy; Weyers, Jonathan D. B.; Codd, Geoffrey A. (August 1996). "Microcystin-LR Inhibits Photosynthesis of Phaseolus vulgaris Primary Leaves: Implications for Current Spray Irrigation Practice". New Phytologist. 133 (4): 651–8. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.1996.tb01934.x. JSTOR 2558683.
  29. ^ http://www.hindawi.com/journals/isrn.microbiology/2013/596429/
  30. ^ "Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms" (PDF). EPA. 2013.
  31. ^ "Algal bloom leaves 500,000 without drinking water in northeast Ohio". Reuters. August 2, 2014.
  32. ^ Rick Jervis, USA TODAY (August 2, 2014). "Toxins contaminate drinking water in northwest Ohio".
  33. ^ John Seewer. "Don't drink the water, says 4th-largest Ohio city".
  34. ^ "Toxins in water leads to state of emergency in Ohio". Ohio Standard. Retrieved 2 August 2014.
  35. ^ http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/30825/20161028/beware-high-levels-freshwater-toxin-found-shellfish-san-francisco-bay.htm[full citation needed]
  36. ^ Xu, C; Shu, W. Q.; Cao, J; Qiu, Z. Q.; Zhao, Q; Chen, J. A.; Zeng, H; Fu, W. J. (2007). "绿茶对微囊藻毒素诱导肝肾氧化损伤的拮抗效应" [Antagonism effects of green tea against microcystin induced oxidant damage on liver and kidney]. 中华预防医学杂志 (in Chinese). 41 (1): 8–12. doi:10.3760/j:issn:0253-9624.2007.01.003. PMID 17484202.
  37. ^ Xu, Chuan; Shu, Wei-Qun; Qiu, Zhi-Qun; Chen, Ji-An; Zhao, Qing; Cao, Jia (2007). "Protective effects of green tea polyphenols against subacute hepatotoxicity induced by microcystin-LR in mice". Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology. 24 (2): 140–8. doi:10.1016/j.etap.2007.04.004. PMID 21783802.
  38. ^ Gan, Nanqin; Mi, Lixin; Sun, Xiaoyun; Dai, Guofei; Chung, Fung-Lung; Song, Lirong (2010). "Sulforaphane protects Microcystin-LR-induced toxicity through activation of the Nrf2-mediated defensive response". Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. 247 (2): 129–37. doi:10.1016/j.taap.2010.06.005. PMC 3577422. PMID 20600217.

Further reading[edit]

  • National Center for Environmental Assessment. Toxicological Reviews of Cyanobacterial Toxins: Microcystins LR, RR, YR, and LA (NCEA-C-1765)

External links[edit]