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Saxitoxin is a pyrrolopurine alkaloid and potent neurotoxin found in a variety of shellfish, including mussels, clams, and scallops. It is produced by marine dinoflagellates (e.g., Gonyaulax catenella and Alexandrium tamarense), freshwater cyanobacteria (e.g., Dolichospermum cicinale), and other microorganisms that the shellfish ingest. The term saxitoxin is also used for a series of structurally related microbe-derived neurotoxins.
Saxitoxin takes its name from the Alaskan butter clam (Saxidomus gigantea) from which it was first identified in 1937 by Hermann Sommer1 and co-workers at the University of California, San Francisco. In 1966, Edward J. Schantz1 and colleagues at the US Army Biological Laboratories (Fort Detrick, MD) purified saxitoxin and determined its properties. By 1975, Schantz was at the University of Wisconsin (Madison); he and collaborators there and at Iowa State University (Ames) elucidated the structure of saxitoxin.
In 2008, Mark A. Simmons at Northeast Ohio Medical University (Rootstown) wrote:
Saxitoxin (STX), a highly selective and potent blocker of voltage-dependent sodium channels in motor nerves, causes skeletal muscle paralysis. It is found in filter-feeding mollusks [that] consume planktonic algae. . . . Ingestion of these mollusks by humans results in paralytic shellfish poisoning, which may result in death in a matter of hours if sufficient toxin is absorbed. There is no antidote for STX poisoning.
Also in 2008, Brian A. Neilan and co-workers at the University of New South Wales (Sydney) proposed a 10-step biosynthetic pathway to saxitoxin in the freshwater cyanobacterium Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii. For much more information about saxitoxin, see the ScienceDirect information page.
1. Sommer and Schantz were pioneers in characterizing shellfish toxins.
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