JO ANN BURKHOLDER:

THE CELL FROM HELL


In recent months, the media has given prominent coverage to the so-called "cell from hell." Pfiesteria piscicida is a toxic alga found in the eastern waterways of North Carolina. Since 1991, it has killed hundreds of millions of fish in the Albermarle-Pamlico Estuary and the Neuse River, and recently might have reached the Chesapeake Bay area. Some 100 humans have been victimized by the predatory organism, suffering open sores, nausea, memory loss, fatigue, disorientation or even near-total incapacitation. The heroine who discovered this microscopic killer, JoAnn Burkholder, Ph.D. '86, an aquatic botanist at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, was herself exposed in 1993 to the alga's toxin--said to be 1,000 times stronger than cyanide. "I remember staring at words on my computer," recalls Burkholder, "but I couldn't put them into sentences. I couldn't even remember my phone number." She attributed the growth of this new alga to nourishment from runoff from industrial development, including hog farming. Her discovery was not welcomed by state officials, who feared its negative impact on tourism and industrial growth. "State environmental officials acted as if the organism didn't exist," she says. Worse, JoAnn was harassed and even received anonymous death threats. But gradually, as dozens of fishermen working in Pfiesteria-infested waters began reporting the same symptoms, JoAnn's theory gained ground. Microscopic evidence mounted. The method of the unicellular monster proved to be bizarre. What looks like a harmless cyst would go bonkers in the presence of fish. The tiny microbes sprout a whip-like tail, race to their prey, sucking up fish flesh and spewing their toxin. They feast until sated, then become passive again. It took a keen eye, a good scientist, and a courageous one to discover and expose this creature. Indeed, JoAnn recently received her ultimate vindication--a $250,000 grant to study how the cell from hell.

photo caption: In her NCSU lab, Burkholder studies the killer microbe (inset) she discovered and named.