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TV Program Spotlights Discovery of Microorganism

BOONE— Toxins emitted by Pfiesteria, a microorganism linked to fish kills and illness among people along North Carolina’s coastal waterways in the 1990s, may hold clues for curing diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, says N.C. State University scientist JoAnn Burkholder.

Such on-going research is among the positive outcomes of the Pfiesteria story, the aquatic botanist says on “Appalachian Perspective,” the cable television show of Appalachian State University.

“Appalachian Perspective” is a 30-minute program hosted by Chancellor Francis T. Borkowski. It airs in Watauga County weeknights at 6 on cable Channel 39 and Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. on cable Channel 2. It also airs on cable outlets in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Newport, and Kannapolis.

In the episode “Science and Public Policy,” Burkholder recounts her discovery of Pfiesteria and the political ramifications that ensued. Scientists speculate that Pfiesteria probably has existed for thousands of years, but run-off of fertilizer and human and animal waste into slow moving waters created a nutrient-overloaded environment in which Pfiesteria thrives and becomes deadly to fish.

Its toxins also cause severe problems for people, such as short-term memory loss, respiratory difficulties, vomiting and changes in their immune system.

Burkholder says state environmental and health officials viewed her data as a threat to tourism and the economy. Poultry industry leaders offered a reward for anyone who could disprove her data, while a seafood industry lobbyist called for her resignation, she says.

“It was quite a learning experience,” she explains. “Scientific information isn’t necessarily going to be accepted right away, even when it’s cross-confirmed and verified by independent laboratories. It has to cross a rather daunting political gauntlet, and that’s part of the Pfiesteria story.”

However, the discovery of Pfiesteria and its effects eventually helped the public and governmental leaders “understand that water quality, fish health and human health can be strongly linked,” Burkholder says.

“We have such a clear and pressing need in this country for environmental education, and the Pfiesteria issue all along the eastern seaboard has helped people understand the importance of our estuaries and the importance of maintaining good water quality,” she says.

On “Appalachian Perspective,” Burkholder also discusses water-quality monitoring on the Neuse River, hurricanes’ impact on Pfiesteria’s growth, continuing research, and the need for universities to better prepare young scientists to be politically savvy.

“It’s an important thing for young people to understand how science and policy interface and don’t interface, what it’s like when a person discovers information that’s politically unpalatable and what happens to that scientist. All those are very real parts of how science works.”

Burkholder warns that other harmful creatures may become prominent as pollution further alters the environment.

“The more we as people change our environment—water and air—the more we can expect to be favoring some of these creatures that were pretty minor in the past,” she says.

“Appalachian Perspective” is produced by Appalachian’s Office of Public Affairs. The episode “Science and Public Policy” airs throughout October.

For more information, call Producer Linda Coutant at (828) 262-2342.