LC-MS-MS aboard ship: tandem mass spectrometry in the search for phycotoxins and novel toxigenic plankton from the North Sea

Krock, Bernd; Tillmann, Urban; John, Uwe; Cembella, Allan
November 2008
Analytical & Bioanalytical Chemistry;Nov2008, Vol. 392 Issue 5, p797
Academic Journal
Phycotoxins produced by various species of toxigenic microalgae occurring in the plankton are a global threat to the security of seafood resources and the health of humans and coastal marine ecosystems. This has necessitated the development and application of advanced methods in liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry (LC-MS) for monitoring of these compounds, particularly in plankton and shellfish. Most such chemical analyses are conducted in land-based laboratories on stored samples, and thus much information on the near real-time biogeographical distribution and dynamics of phycotoxins in the plankton is unavailable. To resolve this problem, we conducted ship-board analysis of a broad spectrum of phycotoxins collected directly from the water column on an oceanographic cruise along the North Sea coast of Scotland, Norway, and Denmark. We equipped the ship with a triple-quadrupole linear ion-trap hybrid LC-MS-MS system for detection and quantitative analysis of toxins, such as domoic acid, gymnodimine, spirolides, dinophysistoxins, okadaic acid, pectenotoxins, yessotoxins, and azaspiracids (AZAs). We focused particular attention on the detection of AZAs, a group of potent nitrogenous polyether toxins, because the culprit species associated with the occurrence of these toxins in shellfish has been controversial. Marine toxins were analyzed directly from size-fractionated plankton net tows (20 μm mesh size) and Niskin bottle samples from discrete depths, after rapid methanolic extraction but without any further clean-up. Almost all expected phycotoxins were detected in North Sea plankton samples, with domoic acid and 20-methylspirolide G being most abundant. Although AZA was the least abundant of these toxins, the high sensitivity of the LC-MS-MS enabled detailed quantification, indicating that the highest amounts of AZA-1 were present in the southern Skagerrak in the 3–20 μm size-fraction. The direct on-board toxin measurements enabled isolation of plankton from stations with high AZA-1 levels and from the most suspicious size-fraction, i.e. most likely to contain the AZA-producer. A large number (>100) of crude cultures were established by serial dilution and later screened for the presence of AZAs after several weeks growth. From one crude culture containing AZA, a small dinoflagellate was subsequently isolated and brought into pure culture. We have thus proved that even sophisticated mass spectrometers can be operated in ship laboratories without any limitation caused by vibrations of the ship’s engine or by wave movement during heavy seas at wind forces up to nine Beaufort. On-board LC–MS–MS is a valuable method for near real-time analysis of phycotoxins in plankton for studies on bloom dynamics and the fate of toxins in the food web, and for characterization and isolation of putatively toxigenic organisms.


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