Quahog May Hold Key to Botulism Antidote

Quahog May Hold Key to Botulism Antidote UMass Dartmouth researchers exploring New England seafood stalwart's ability to survive massive doses of deadly toxin

UMass Dartmouth scientists are investigating how one of New England’s most valuable natural resources the quahog is able to render botulism, one of the world’s deadliest toxins, virtually harmless. 

The experiments, being conducted on the South Coast of Massachusetts, bring together the past and future of the Massachusetts economy fishing and biotechnology to confront one of the most dangerous bio-terror threats in the world. 

The quest to find out how the ubiquitous New England mollusk thwarts botulism’s fatal paralysis is happening in the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth biochemistry laboratory of Dr. Bal Ram Singh, who this year brought colleagues from India to assist in the research. 

Biologist Dr. V.K. Das spent the past six months working with Singh’s research group to better understand the quahog’s resistance to botulism poisoning in order to further the group’s research on the development of better protection for people against the toxin.. 

“We could inject a quahog with enough poison to kill 100,000 people and it wouldn’t die,” Singh said. “But what we’ve learned is far more interesting than I originally supposed. Botulinum does have an effect on the animal. It turns from creamy white to brown so something in the quahog appears to destroy enough of the toxin in order to survive it. There will be more to this story.” 

Dr. Singh’s research laboratory-- a federally funded Regional Center for Bioterrorism Research, which has additional grants from the U.S. Army and the National Institutes of Health has been painstakingly isolating the chemical effects of botulinum on the nervous system of quahogs. 

Dr. Singh initially fixed on the quahog for his research because it survives the deadly PCB contamination found in New Bedford’s Acushnet River. However, he and his graduate students had been using frozen quahog tissue that had been dissected in commercial scientific laboratories. 

Singh’s laboratory meets federal safety and security requirements for scientific research into deadly toxins such as Botulinum neurotoxin. 

“Dr. Das has changed the topography of our lab,” Singh said. “He taught us how to dissect the nerves in whole quahogs so that we can study the effect of the toxin on their nervous systems. He has made an important contribution to our work that I hope we can continue in future exchanges.” 

The Das’ worked as a team in Singh’s laboratory. Dr. Vijai Krishna Das, who was one of Singh’s undergraduate professors in India, taught the researchers and technicians quahog anatomy and dissection, while his wife, Dr. Shobha Das, prepared tissue slides for the researchers. 

“I visited with them in India last year and learned that my former professor was working on parallel research on the effect of pesticides on fish,” Singh recalled. “So I invited them to come to UMass Dartmouth and work with us.” 

It was the couple’s first visit to the United States. They enjoyed weekly visits by one of their three sons who is an electrical engineer at Analog Devices. Their other sons, a businessman and an engineer, live in India. 

Drs. Vijai and Shobha Das returned to Kamla Nehru Institute of Physical & Social Science, G.S Post Graduate College, respectively, in Sultanpur, India where they are faculty members. 

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