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Blue-green algae release chemical suspected in some amphibian deformities

Retinoic acid levels high in waterways rich in cyanobacteria blooms

Harmless as they may look, some of the microbes called cyanobacteria have the power to dose waterways with a range of chemicals that might cause deformities in frogs or other vertebrate wildlife.

Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, could be an underappreciated but widespread source of compounds called retinoic acids in waterways, says environmental toxicologist Jianying Hu of Peking University. Out of 24 kinds of cyanobacteria grown in a lab, 13 produced some kind of retinoic acid or retinoic acid cousin, Hu and her colleagues report online May 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Retinoic acids, formed from vitamin A, help sculpt developing body parts in vertebrates. Researchers puzzling over clusters of deformed frogs first highlighted in the 1990s have considered retinoic acids as one of several possible villains.

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