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Toxicon. 1998 Jul;36(7):953-62.

The toxicology of microcystins.

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Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory, Melbourne VIC, Australia.


Microcystins are a family of more than 50 structurally similar hepatotoxins produced by species of freshwater cyanobacteria, primarily Microcystis aeruginosa. They are monocyclic heptapeptides, characterised by some invariant amino acids, including one of unusual structure which is essential for expression of toxicity. Microcystins are chemically stable, but suffer biodegradation in reservoir waters. The most common member of the family, microcystin-LR (L and R identifying the 2 variable amino acids, in this case leucine and arginine respectively) has an LD50 in mice and rats of 36-122 microg/kg by various routes, including aerosol inhalation. Although human illnesses attributed to microcystins include gastroenteritis and allergic/irritation reactions, the primary target of the toxin is the liver, where disruption of the cytoskeleton, consequent on inhibition of protein phosphatases 1 and 2A, causes massive hepatic haemorrhage. Microcystins are tight-binding inhibitors of these protein phosphatases, with inhibition constants in the nanomolar range or lower. Uptake of microcystins into the liver occurs via a carrier-mediated transport system, and several inhibitors of uptake can antagonise the toxic effects of microcystins. The most effective of these is the antibiotic rifampin (a drug approved for clinical use), which protects mice and rats against microcystin-induced lethality when given prophylactically and, in some cases, therapeutically.

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