On Pfiesteria, Scientific sleuths got their man Skeptical researchers were persuaded by examining victims

September 28, 1997|By Dan Fesperman and Douglas M. Birch | Dan Fesperman and Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

When Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr. gathered a team of medical sleuths to follow the trail of Pfiesteria piscicida, he suspected they were chasing a mirage.

Dispatched by the state to the Eastern Shore, they were to find out whether a one-celled organism was making people sick along the Pocomoke River.

To say they were skeptical is putting it mildly, said Morris, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

As they boarded a bus Aug. 22 for the three-hour ride, he said, "I gave everybody a half-hour lecture on Pfiesteria hysteria and how our role was to calm public concerns."

But by the time they had examined the seventh of 13 patients, the scientists began glancing at each other with astonished, knowing looks.

By day's end, they were downright excited. They eagerly compared notes beneath map lights as their van returned through the night to Baltimore.

By the next afternoon, their findings were clear: Something strange, unique and disturbing had happened to those people on the Pocomoke. And it was no mirage.

Thus began the groundbreaking work that has turned many skeptics into believers while producing a scientific rarity: a genuine moment of discovery, on an issue that could affect the way people live, work and play on the Chesapeake Bay.

Building upon the research of Dr. JoAnn Burkholder in North Carolina, the work of Morris' team has already led to the closing of three Maryland waterways.

It has also prompted North Carolina health officials to re-examine their earlier dismissal of the harm Pfiesteria might do to humans.

The scientific work has produced an unfortunate side effect -- the unwarranted shunning of Chesapeake Bay seafood by wary consumers. But only further research is likely to calm them, because Pfiesteria remains an enigma.

A Jekyll-Hyde organism that might have grazed harmlessly for millions of years on bacteria and algae, Pfiesteria sometimes transforms into a poisonous predator, and no one knows why.

If it weren't for the work of Burkholder, a 43-year-old aquatic ecologist, Pfiesteria might still be undiscovered. She stumbled on it in 1988, when a colleague at North Carolina State University asked her to help figure out what was killing the fish in a research aquarium.

Some biologists scoffed at her claim of finding a new, fish-eating species of dinoflagellate -- a class of free-swimming microbes, perhaps 450 million years old, that includes some 1,200 species.

There are other toxic dinoflagellates, but they drew little attention until recent years. As of 1984, only 22 had been identified. By last year, the figure had nearly tripled, to 60.

Even those who study toxic microbes had trouble believing that a dinoflagellate could become such a cunning killer, stalking and attacking its prey with powerful toxins.

Burkholder and her colleagues suspected from the start that Pfiesteria was killing fish in the wild. But they couldn't prove it until May 1990, when a state chemist in North Carolina cruised into a mass of a million bleeding menhaden, southern flounder, hogchokers and spot, thrashing wildly in the coffee-colored water of the Pamlico River.

He sent water samples to Burkholder. Peering through her microscope, she found those samples thick with a single-celled creature resembling a two-headed mushroom: one of Pfiesteria's life stages.

One mystery was solved, but another surfaced: What was happening to her and others working at her laboratory at North Carolina State University in Raleigh?

In January 1993, her eyes began to burn as she peered into a 10-gallon aquarium of Pfiesteria-infested waters. Without thinking, she raised a wet rubber glove and wiped her eyes.

Time seemed to slow down. She gulped for breath, doubled over in pain. Worst of all, she couldn't form a coherent sentence.

Alone and terrified

Confused, and afraid colleagues would think she was unbalanced, she went home, where she huddled for a week without answering the phone. During that terrifying period, she said, she couldn't read, couldn't speak and forgot the simplest things.

"Imagine not being able to remember your name, where you live," she said. "Or to forget the beginning of a sentence before you get to the end."

It didn't end with her.

During the months that graduate student Howard Glasgow Jr. spent studying Pfiesteria in Burkholder's laboratory, he turned snappish and forgetful. He suffered excruciating headaches.

His physician couldn't find anything wrong. Finally, Glasgow went to see a Duke University neurologist, Dr. Donald Schmechel.

Schmechel examined Glasgow, Burkholder and a third researcher. Of the 12 people working in her lab, they were the ones working most closely with Pfiesteria.

Now her lab is equipped with a large plastic hood that keeps the staff from coming into contact with the organism when it assumes its most toxic form. They also wear protective clothing, gloves and respirators.

Despite those experiences of Burkholder's team, some other scientists remained dubious that Pfiesteria could make people sick.

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