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Dinoflagellates in the genus Gambierdiscus produce toxins that bioaccumulate in tropical and sub-tropical fishes causing ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP). Little is known about the diversity and distribution of Gambierdiscus species, the degree to which individual species vary in toxicity, and the role each plays in causing CFP. This paper presents the first global distribution of Gambierdiscus species. Phylogenetic analyses of the existing isolates indicate that five species are endemic to the Atlantic (including the Caribbean/West Indies and Gulf of Mexico), five are endemic to the tropical Pacific, and that two species, Gambierdiscus carpenteri and Gambierdiscus caribaeus are globally distributed. The differences in Gambierdiscus species composition in the Atlantic and Pacific correlated with structural differences in the ciguatoxins reported from Atlantic and Pacific fish. This correlation supports the hypothesis that Gambierdiscus species in each region produce different toxin suites. A literature survey indicated a >100-fold variation in toxicity among species compared with a 2 to 9-fold within species variation due to changing growth conditions. These observations suggest that CFP events are driven more by inherent differences in species toxicity than by environmental modulation. How variations in species toxicity may affect the development of an early warning system for CFP is discussed.
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