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Cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying long-term effects of early-life exposure to Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) toxins

(Please see also Project 3 in the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health.)


The overall objective of this research is to elucidate the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which early-life exposure to harmful algal bloom (HAB) toxins may interfere with neurodevelopment to cause persistent neurobehavioral changes later in life. The HAB toxins domoic acid and saxitoxin occur in seafood and levels are regulated to prevent acute toxicity. However, human exposure to these toxins at levels below regulatory limits is common, widespread, and may be increasing, posing risks to vulnerable subpopulations such as developing humans.

It is now well known that the early life environment can profoundly influence health throughout the life course (developmental origins of health and disease). However, the mechanisms by which developmental exposures elicit effects later in life are not well understood. The central hypothesis of this research is that early life, low-level exposure to domoic acid and saxitoxin targets neurotransmitter receptors and ion channels, leading to altered gene expression, functional changes in glial and neural cells, and long-term changes in neurobehavioral function in adults. These studies are being conducted using zebrafish, a powerful model organism in developmental neurotoxicology research. This research will identify the cellular and molecular bases for neurobehavioral effects following early-life exposure to prominent HAB toxins, contributing to an understanding of the potential long-term health consequences of developmental exposure to domoic acid and saxitoxin in humans, critical for assessing public health risks associated with the possibly increasing exposure to these toxins.

Recent papers:

Panlilio JM, Aluru N, Hahn ME (2020) Developmental neurotoxicity of the harmful algal bloom toxin domoic acid: Cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying altered behavior in the zebrafish model. Environmental Health Perspectives 128: 117002. ( (PMCID: PMC7641300)

Panlilio, J. M., Jones, I. T., Salanga, M. C., Aluru, N. M. and Hahn, ME (2021). Developmental exposure to domoic acid disrupts startle response behavior and circuitry. bioRxiv

Funding Agencies

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.


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The research is part of the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health.

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Research Papers

A few of the key papers resulting from this work are listed below.