Palytoxin-Containing Aquarium Soft Corals as
an Emerging Sanitary Problem
Marco Pelin, Valentina Brovedani, Silvio Sosa and Aurelia Tubaro *
Department of Life Sciences, University of Trieste, Via Valerio 6, 34127 Trieste, Italy; email@example.com (M.P.);
firstname.lastname@example.org (V.B.); email@example.com (S.S.)
*Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel.: +39-040-558-8835
Academic Editor: Peer B. Jacobson
Received: 1 December 2015; Accepted: 27 January 2016; Published: 4 February 2016
Palytoxin (PLTX), one the most potent marine toxins, and/or its analogs, have been
identified in different marine organisms, such as Palythoa soft corals, Ostreopsis dinoflagellates, and
Trichodesmium cyanobacteria. Although the main concern for human health is PLTXs entrance in
the human food chain, there is growing evidence of adverse effects associated with inhalational,
cutaneous, and/or ocular exposure to aquarium soft corals contaminated by PLTXs or aquaria waters.
Indeed, the number of case reports describing human poisonings after handling these cnidarians is
continuously increasing. In general, the signs and symptoms involve mainly the respiratory (rhinorrhea
and coughing), skeletomuscular (myalgia, weakness, spasms), cardiovascular (electrocardiogram
alterations), gastrointestinal (nausea), and nervous (paresthesia, ataxia, tremors) systems or apparates.
The widespread phenomenon, the entity of the signs and symptoms of poisoning and the lack
of control in the trade of corals as aquaria decorative elements led to consider these poisonings
an emerging sanitary problem. This review summarizes literature data on human poisonings due to,
or ascribed to, PLTX-containing soft corals, focusing on the different PLTX congeners identiﬁed in
these organisms and their toxic potential.
Keywords: palytoxins; Palythoa;Zoanthus; dermotoxicity; inhalational toxicity; aquarium
The history of palytoxin (PLTX) is closely connected to soft corals since the time of the Hawaiian
Limu-make-o-Hana legend, which literally means “The toxic seaweed of Hana”. This legend tells of
a man carrying a shark mouth on his back, used to kill ﬁshermen entering in his ﬁshing area. The man
was killed by one ﬁshermen that, after burning his body, threw his ashes into a tide pool near the
harbor of Hana where, shortly after, started to grow a “toxic algae”. The warriors used to dip the tips
of their spears in this water to make them fatal. At the beginning of 1960s, Prof. Helfrich discovered
the exact location of this place, as well as the “toxic algae”, found to be a soft coral belonging to the
genus Palythoa (P. toxica). Thus, the toxin identiﬁed in this zoanthid ten years later by Prof. Scheuer
was called palytoxin [
]. Over the decades, chemical, biological, and toxicological studies on PLTX
have elucidated the peculiar properties of this fascinating marine toxin that nowadays is considered
one of the most toxic non-proteinaceous natural compounds.
After the beginning of its history, the interconnections between PLTX and soft corals have progressively
lost their strength since the toxin and a series of its analogs have been subsequently identified in other
marine organisms, phylogenetically very different from cnidaria, such as dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria,
and edible vertebrates and invertebrates [
]. In particular, consumption of PLTX-contaminated seafood
was associated with human cases of severe, and even lethal, adverse effects in tropical and subtropical
areas. Subsequently, different toxicological implications for human health were ascribed to PLTXs
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33; doi:10.3390/md14020033 www.mdpi.com/journal/marinedrugs
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 2 of 22
in temperate areas: the signs and symptoms ascribed to these toxins involved mainly the upper
respiratory tract and the skin, after inhalational, and/or cutaneous exposure to seawater and/or
Ostreopsis cells concomitantly to these dinoﬂagellate blooms. Moreover, epidemiological data showed
that the majority of the poisonings certainly ascribed to PLTXs could be linked to dinoﬂagellates,
shifting the interest from soft corals to microalgae or to marine edible organisms that could accumulate
these toxins through the food chain [
]. However, in recent years the toxicological implications of
PLTXs for human health gradually recurred to the exposure through soft corals. Indeed, the number of
case reports on human poisonings after manipulation of PLTX-contaminated soft corals, widely used
as aquaria decorative elements by aquarium hobbyists, is continuously increasing. The widespread
phenomenon, also due to the lack of coral trade controls, and the entity of the adverse effects led to
consider these poisonings an emerging sanitary problem, even though still underestimated.
This review will summarize and discuss the documented cases of human poisonings due, or
ascribed, to PLTX-contaminated aquarium soft corals, considering the different PLTX congeners
currently identiﬁed in these cnidarians and the relevant toxicological potential.
1.1. Palytoxin: Producing Organisms
PLTX has been identiﬁed in a variety of marine organisms in tropical, subtropical, and temperate
regions. The original source of PLTX was a soft coral, Palythoa toxica, collected in Hawaii. Throughout
the years, it has also been identiﬁed in other species belonging to the genera Palythoa and Zoanthus [
More details will be given in Section 3.1, describing PLTX analogs identiﬁed in Palythoa and Zoanthus
In 1995, a PLTX-like molecule was identiﬁed in benthic dinoﬂagellates of the genus Ostreopsis.
This compound, isolated form O. siamensis, was named ostreocin-D (Ost-D; see Section 1.2) . Interestingly
only O. siamensis of the Japanese strain was shown to produce Ost-D, and the toxin has never been
identiﬁed in O. siamensis of the Mediterranean area, so far [
]. Other Ostreopsis species were later found
to contain PLTX-like compounds: O. mascarenenesis, containing mascarenotoxins [
], and O. ovata,
a source of ovatoxins (see Section 1.2) .
To explain PLTX’s presence in phylogenetically-different species, some authors proposed bacteria
as producing organisms and a possible common source of these toxins. With this respect, Frolova et al. 
using anti-PLTX antibodies, detected PLTX-like compounds in Gram-negative Aeromonas sp. and
Vibrio sp. bacteria. Similarly, bacteria isolated from Palythoa caribaeorum were found to display
a PLTX-like hemolytic activity [
]. In addition, PLTX and 42-hydroxy-PLTX were isolated from marine
Trichodesmium spp. cyanobacteria [
]. However, a clear deﬁnition of the actual producing organism of
PLTX is still a matter of debate.
1.2. Palytoxin: Molecular Structure
The chemical structure of PLTX was elucidated in 1981, almost a decade after its ﬁrst identiﬁcation
in Palythoa toxica, by two independent research groups [
]. The chemical formula of PLTX is
, with a molecular weight of 2680.13 Da. PLTX is considered one of the most complex
and large non-polymeric natural molecules: it contains 129 aliphatic carbon atoms, 40 secondary
hydroxyl groups, two diene motifs, a conjugate acrylamide-enamide system, three unsaturated bonds,
two hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains, cyclic ether systems, and bicyclic acetals (Figure 1). The structure
contains 64 chiral centres, leading to a huge number of possible conformational stereoisomers [
Structural studies demonstrated that PLTX assumes a dimeric form in aqueous solution, acquiring
a form of
, measuring 52.3
15.1 Å [
]. The PLTX moieties involved in the dimer formation
have not been identiﬁed, so far, although the hydrophobic region (C21–C40) and the region around the
conjugated double bonds (C60–C84) are thought to be tentatively involved. Moreover, the terminal
amino group is probably involved in the interaction between the two PLTX molecules: its acetylation
prevents the dimer formation and reduces the
biological activity (smooth muscle contraction)
by about 100 times with respect to PLTX .
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 3 of 22
Figure 1. Chemical structure of PLTX and its main analogs.
In addition to PLTX, a series of its analogs has been identified, so far. They differ from PLTX for
additional and/or missing hydroxyl and/or methyl groups, or for chiralities, which sometimes influence
their toxic potency. Only few PLTX analogs have been studied under a chemical and/or biological
point of view. Among them, two isomers had been isolated from soft corals: 42-hydroxy-palytoxin
(42S-OH-50S-PLTX), isolated from Palythoa toxica [
], and its stereoisomer with a conformational
inversion at C50 (42S-OH-50R-PLTX), extracted from Palythoa tuberculosa [
]. For a complete list of
PLTX analogs identiﬁed in soft corals and the relevant toxicological properties, refer to Section 3.1.
The limited studies on PLTX analogs identiﬁed in dinoﬂagellates involved ostreocin-D (Ost-D),
isolated from Ostreopsis siamensis in Japan [
], and ovatoxin-a (OVTX-a), the major toxin produced
by Ostreopsis cf. ovata in the Mediterranean Sea [
]. Recent investigations identiﬁed several OVTX-a
analogs (OVTX-b to -h) in Ostreopsis cf. ovata, at concentrations lower than those of OVTX-a. Intriguingly
in different parts of the Mediterranean Sea, OVTX-a has been always detected as the major O. cf. ovata
toxin, with isobaric PLTX being frequently detected only in traces [
]. Very recently, an
study demonstrated that OVTX-a cytotoxicity and binding afﬁnity towards skin keratinocytes are
more than two orders of magnitude lower than those of PLTX. Accordinlgy, also OVTX-a hemolytic
effect seems to be lower than that of PLTX .
1.3. Mechanism of Action
The molecular target of PLTX is Na
ATPase, a transmembrane pump belonging to the family
of P-type ATPases, essential for maintaining cellular ion homeostasis. Na
ions out of the cell in trade for two K
ions, exploiting ATP hydrolysis. PLTX binding to
ATPase heterodimer changes the transmembrane pump into a nonspeciﬁc monovalent cation
channel, leading to a consistent ionic imbalance at the cellular level [
]. The channel formed by
PLTX binding seems to be a consequence of ATPase conformational changes leading to a loss of pump
gate control and uncoupling of the ion transport. In addition, PLTX binding reduces the rate of the
pump de-phosphorylation, protracting the channel opening [25,26].
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 4 of 22
The cardioactive glycoside ouabain (OUA), known to inhibit Na
ATPase, has been reported to
]. However, the incomplete abolishment of PLTX biological activities
by OUA suggests that the latter does not completely compete with PLTX for the same molecular
]. In fact, Artigas and Gadsby demonstrated that PLTX and OUA can simultaneously
bind to Na
-ATPase, suggesting two binding sites on the pump [
]. Accordingly, the presence
of a high-affinity binding site for PLTX on skin HaCaT keratinocytes was subsequently reported.
This binding site appears to be partially insensitive to OUA and partially modulated by OUA in a complex
manner: as a negative allosteric modulator against high PLTX concentrations (0.3–1.0
M) and as
a non-competitive antagonist against low PLTX concentrations (0.1–3.0
M). This hypothesis could
explain the inability of OUA to totally prevent PLTX-induced cytotoxic effects in HaCaT cells .
The transformation of Na
-ATPase into a non-selective cationic channel by PLTX results in a
sustained cellular ion homeostasis imbalance, as previously reviewed by Rossini and Bigiani [
The ﬁrst event consists of an intracellular overload of Na
causing a cell membrane depolarization,
accompanied by a massive efﬂux of K
and inﬂux of Ca
inﬂux seems to be mediated by
reverse functioning of the Na
exchanger (NCE) caused by the increased intracellular Na
concentrations. Although not yet completely clear, the increased intracellular Ca
levels might induce
the opening of K
channels, further impairing the cell ionic balance. Moreover, the intracellular
increase appears to induce a cytoplasm acidiﬁcation, probably due to the reverse functioning of
exchanger (NHE) [
]. It is widely accepted that the cytotoxic effects of PLTX are strictly
dependent on this ionic imbalance. Depending on the cellular type (i.e., non-excitable or excitable
- or Ca
-dependent cytotoxic effects have been reported. Na
overload seems to be the
ﬁrst step in mediating PLTX-induced early cell damage, as recently demonstrated on human HaCaT
]. Moreover, the intracellular H
increase, consequent to the abnormal intracellular
concentration induced by the toxin, seems to be the driving force for O
production by reversing
the mitochondrial electron transport [
], ultimately leading to an irreversible necrotic cell death [
This ﬁnding is consistent with previous observations supporting Na+dependency of PLTX effects [14,36–38]
On the contrary, in excitable cells, where intracellular signalling is highly dependent on Ca
concentrations with respect to non-excitable cells, PLTX effects are strictly dependent on Ca
Indeed, the increased intracellular Ca
concentrations induced by Na
overload were shown to trigger
a series of Ca
-dependent cytotoxic effects, such as neurotransmitter release, uncontrolled muscle cell
contraction, up to Ca
-dependent cell death [
]. As a secondary event to the sustained ionic
imbalance, damages at the cytoskeleton level induced by PLTX, such as depolymerization of actin
ﬁlaments in intestinal  and neuroblastoma cells [41,42], were also reported.
1.4. Human Risk Associated with Palytoxin Exposure
Cases of human poisonings ascribed to PLTXs have been generally associated with four exposure
routes: (i) oral exposure; (ii) cutaneous exposure; (iii) inhalational exposure; and (iv) ocular exposure.
The oral exposure after ingestion of contaminated fish or crustaceans is the most harmful for human
health, although a limited number of foodborne poisonings have been documented only in tropical
and subtropical regions, so far [
]. Among the foodborne poisonings ascribed to PLTX, only
a few of them were certainly attributed to these toxins by their direct detection in the leftovers
through biological and/or chemical methods of analysis. The vectors of PLTX were mainly crabs
(Demania reynaudii; Alcala et al. 1988), parrotﬁsh (Scarus ovifrons) [
], goldspot herring (Herklotsichthys
], and serranid ﬁsh (Epinephelus sp.) [
]. The symptoms of poisoning
initially involved the gastro-intestinal tract (nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting) and the nervous system
(convulsions, dizziness, numbness, and restlessness), with subsequent involvement of other excitable
tissues, such as those of skeletal muscle (weakness, muscle cramps, myalgia, and rhabdomyolysis)
and cardiovascular system (bradycardia, tachycardia). The clinical picture usually worsened, with
symptoms involving the respiratory tract (rapid and shallow breathing, cyanosis, and dyspnea) leading,
in some cases, to respiratory failure and death. Other documented cases were attributed to PLTXs by
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 5 of 22
an indirect toxin detection in the causative species collected after or before the poisoning, sometimes
even in different areas. Some cases were attributed to the toxin only on the basis of the clinical signs and
symptoms associated with seafood ingestion. For a complete list refer to Tubaro et al.  and Wu et al. 
In temperate areas, human poisonings ascribed to PLTX were often associated with inhalation of
marine aerosol and/or cutaneous exposures to seawater during Ostreopsis blooms. The most common
signs and symptoms were respiratory distress, rhinorrhea, cough, fever, and dermatitis [
Several cases of adverse effects after exposure to seawater during Ostreopsis blooms occurred along
the Italian coasts [
] and some episodes also along other Mediterranean coasts [
]. In these
cases, the toxins detection and/or quantitation are often incomplete or missing, and they have been
frequently ascribed to PLTX only on the basis of symptoms, anamnesis, and/or environmental data.
Notwithstanding, the documented episodes could represent only the tip of the iceberg since these
poisonings could be signiﬁcantly underestimated. In fact, the symptoms do not always require
hospitalization and could be frequently ascribed to a different etiology .
In recent years, there is growing evidence that inhalational and/or cutaneous exposure to PLTXs
could also occur after handling PLTX-contaminated soft corals during maintenance of home marine
aquaria. The toxic potential of PLTXs identiﬁed in soft corals, together with the uncontrolled trade of
these zoanthids, raise a serious concern for human health. Due to the growing number of documented
cases, these poisonings can be considered an emerging sanitary problem.
2. Human Poisonings Postulated to PLTX Exposure through Handling of Soft Corals
2.1. Exposure Routes
As reported above, adverse effects in humans ascribed to PLTXs have been generally associated
with exposure to contaminated marine organisms and/or seawater through: (i) oral exposure;
(ii) cutaneous exposure; (iii) inhalational exposure; and (iv) ocular exposure. Poisonings associated
with handling of PLTX-contaminated soft corals are no exception, although ingestion of corals or
surrounding seawater can be regarded as improbable, but not impossible, events. On the other
hand, inhalation of vapors from home marine aquaria during the eradication of PLTX-contaminated
zoanthids appears to be the most frequent route of exposure to PLTXs associated with soft corals.
Indeed, since these corals rapidly colonize the aquaria due to the optimal growing conditions, they
have to be frequently eradicated, usually by pouring boiling water and/or brushing the rocks carrying
these cnidarians. The subsequent steam inhalation can induce a series of adverse effects involving
the respiratory tract (i.e., rhinorrhea, cough, dyspnea) but also other symptoms, such as myalgia,
paresthesias, tachycardia, hypotension, fever, and gastrointestinal symptoms [1,54–57].
Similarly, accidental cutaneous exposure to PLTX-contaminated corals by aquarium hobbyists while
cleaning marine aquaria has been associated with adverse effects. In addition to local inflammatory
signs, such as edema and erythema, systemic symptoms of poisoning were experienced after handling
the corals, both by intact or damaged skin. Among them, perioral paresthesia and dysgeusia were the
most common ones and, in the most severe cases, transitory alterations of cardiac functions were also
Although ocular exposure is one of the less predictable exposure routes for PLTX, cases of eye
irritation, mainly keratoconjunctivitis, occurred after the contact with mucous secretions from soft
2.2. Human Poisonings Ascribed to Palytoxins-Contaminated Soft Corals: Direct Identiﬁcation of PLTXs in
Similarly to the human poisonings associated with consumption of PLTX-contaminated seafood,
documented cases of PLTX adverse effects by exposure to soft corals supported by the toxin’s identification
in the causative specimens, are very limited (Tables 1–3). These cases will be grouped and reviewed on
the basis of the exposure routes.
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 6 of 22
Table 1. Human poisonings due or ascribed to inhalational exposure to vapors or dust from PLTX-contaminated soft corals.
Location, Year Number of
Patients Corals Signs and Symptoms Treatment and Outcome PLTXs Detection Method
and Concentration Reference
Virginia (USA), 2007 1 Palythoa/
Foul odor. Difﬁcult breathing,
lightheadedness, chest pain,
and cough suppressant.
Recovery after 1 month
assay (309 µg PLTX eq./g);
HPLC (613 µg PLTX eq./g) 
The Netherlands, 2014 *
Cough, dyspnea, chest pain, tachycardia,
nausea. Leukocytosis with elevated
neutrophils, CPK, CRP
Oxygen therapy, non-steroidal
Recovery after more than 3 months
LC/MS (1018 µg PLTX/g
wet coral; 46 µg
42-OH-PLTX/g wet coral) 
Alaska (USA), 2014 3 Palythoa
Dyspnea, scratchy throat, paresthesia,
myalgia, spasms, ataxia, weakness,
tremors, nausea, tachycardia, fever
Recovery within 2 days HPLC, LC/MS (7.3 mg
PLTX/g wet coral) 
Oklahoma (USA), 1961 3 Palythoa
caribaeorum Chills, nausea, headache Recovery within 1 day No experimental details
(a compound identical to
PLTX from P. toxica)
New York (USA), 2008 *
1Palythoa sp. Foul odor, shortness of breath, chest
pain, sinus tachycardia Inhaled albuterol.
Recovery after 48 h No analysis 
The Netherlands, 2012 *
4 Zoanthids Fever, hypotension, nausea, headache,
shivering, muscle cramps. Leukocytosis,
Recovery within 48 h No analysis 
Switzerland, 2012 * 3 Palythoa sp.
Dyspnea, dry cough, nausea, headache,
fever, chills, tachycardia, hypoxemia.
Leukocytosis, slightly elevated LDH,
CRP and procalcitonin. Restrictive
ventilator pattern, diffuse bronchial
swelling and secretion.
Treatment not reported.
Recovery within 2 weeks No analysis 
New York (USA), 2013 *
5Palythoa sp. Shortness of breath, fever, dry cough,
chills, myalgia, emesis. Leukocytosis,
slightly elevated LDH, CPK, CKMB
acetaminophen, hydration and
Recovery within 48 h
No analysis [64,65]
2012–2014 9 Zoanthids Bitter metallic taste, fever, tremors,
weakness, ataxia, cough, joint and
muscle pain, pulmonary symptoms
Treatment not reported. Recovery
within 24 h, but sometimes with
pulmonary symptoms after 2 years
No analysis 
New York (USA), 2015 *
3 Zoanthid corals Fever, chills, myalgia, tachycardia,
wheezes, hemoptysis, dyspnea,
leukocytosis, bibasilar opacities
supplemental oxygen, prednisone.
Complete recovery after 1 month No analysis 
* Year of publication; CPK = creatine phosphokinase; CKMB = creatine kinase MB isoenzyme; CRP = C-reactive protein; LDH = lactate dehydrogenase; eq. = equivalents.
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 7 of 22
Table 2. Human poisonings due or ascribed to cutaneous exposure to PLTX-contaminated soft corals.
Location, Year Number of
Patients Corals Signs and Symptoms Treatment and Outcome PLTXs Detection and
1962 1Palythoa toxica
Dizziness, nausea, headache, malaise, discomfort to
after 1 week
NMR (280 µg PLTX/g
wet weight) 
Germany, 2008 * 1 Palythoa sp. and
Shivering, myalgia, weakness of the extremities,
speech disturbance. Swelling and erythema at cut
ﬁnger, numbness, and paresthesias of the arm.
Slightly elevated CPK, LDH, CRP. Abnormal ECG
Infusion of intra-venous
physiological ﬂuids. Recovery
after 48 h
assay (2–3 mg PLTX eq./g
wet weight) 
(USA), 2009 * 1 Zoanthid corals Metallic taste, perioral paresthesia, hives on torso
and extremities, edema and erythema at hands.
Urticarial rash on arms, things, abdomen, and back.
lorazepam. Recovery after 24 h
No analysis 
2006 1Palythoa sp. Chest pain, lightheadedness, weakness, and
numbness of the left arm, tachycardia.
Recovery after 48 h
Patient serum: haemolytic
activity, no neutralization by
anti-PLTX antibody; no
detection by HPLC, LC/MS
* Year of publication; CPK = creatine phosphokinase; CRP = C-reactive protein; LDH = lactate dehydrogenase; ECG = electrocardiogram; eq. = equivalents.
Table 3. Human poisonings ascribed to ocular exposure to PLTX-contaminated soft corals.
Patients Corals Signs and Symptoms Treatment and Outcome PLTXs Detection
and Concentration Reference
N.D. 2 Zoanthids
Ocular irritation and redness, bitter metallic taste, eye
pain photophobia, blurry vision, purulent discharge
from eyes, bilateral punctate epithelial erosion,
Moxiﬂoxacin, artiﬁcial tears, topical
prednisolone acetate, ﬂuorometholone,
moxiﬂoxacin, cyclosporine drops Not performed 
2015 * 1 Zoanthids
Eyes burning, dyspnea, nausea, shivering, conjunctival
injection, superﬁcial punctuate epitheliopathy, multiple
corneal Descemet’s folds, corneal erosion.
Leukocytosis, elevated CRP, CPK, LDH
Intravenous infusion of balanced crystalloid
solution, Diphoterine®, topical antibiotics and
steroid, amniotic membrane transplantation,
sclera contact lenses (4 months). Recovery
within several weeks
Not performed 
* Year of publication; CPK = creatine phosphokinase; CRP = C-reactive protein; LDH = lactate dehydrogenase.
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 8 of 22
2.2.1. Inhalational Exposure to Vapors from Palytoxins-Contaminated Soft Corals
Cases of human poisoning associated to inhalation of vapors from hot water poured on PLTX-contaminated
zoanthids, supported by PLTX detection in the involved cnidarian, are summarized in Table 1.
The ﬁrst well-documented case of a human poisoning by inhalation of steam from PLTX-contaminated
soft corals was described in 2010 [
]. It involved a man in Virginia (USA) who eradicated from his
aquarium a colony of green/brown medium-sized zoanthids, growing on live rock for three years.
Pouring boiling water on the rock, the patient inhaled the steam and immediately felt a foul odor.
Symptoms of poisoning, involving mainly the upper respiratory tract (rhinorrhea and cough), appeared
within 20 min. The patient took an antihistamine agent, believing the symptoms could be caused
by seasonal allergy. Notwithstanding, the symptoms (dyspnea and lightheadedness up to severe
ﬁts of coughing and chest pain) worsened within 4 h and the patient was hospitalized. Upon admission
his electrocardiogram (ECG) was regular, but it is unclear if hematochemical analyses were carried
out. Pharmacological treatment was symptomatic with an anti-inﬂammatory corticosteroid and
pain medications. After 15 h of hospitalization, the patient was discharged with prescribed inhaled
corticosteroid and cough suppressant. A follow-up pulmonary examination, two weeks post-exposure,
diagnosed asthma-like symptoms (bronchial inﬂammation and bronchoconstriction), so that
the pharmacological treatment continued up to the complete relapse, one month post-exposure.
Morphological analysis of the soft corals collected from the infested rock showed them as compatible
with Palythoa/Protopalythoa sp. zoanthids. Hemolysis neutralization assay on the coral ethanol extract
and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) analysis determined 309 and 613
equivalents/g wet coral weight, respectively, whereas electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry
(ESI-MS) conﬁrmed that the toxin was consistent with PLTX. Subsequent investigations in a local
Maryland aquarium store found a colony, morphologically consistent with the Palythoa sp. colony
involved in the Virginia case, containing 515 µg PLTX equivalents/g, as determined by HPLC .
Recently, a poisoning due to steam inhalation from boiling water poured on a soft coral (Palythoa
heliodiscus) involved four patients in The Netherlands. After patient 1 poured hot water over the
coral, all patients developed cough (after 1–2 min) and dyspnea (after 5–10 min). The estimated
exposure of patients 1–4 to vapors was 20, 15, 5, and 10 min, respectively, within six meters
from the coral. The patients were admitted to the emergency room 45 min after starting the coral
cleaning, with a series of symptoms including dyspnea, cough, chest pain, tachycardia, and nausea.
Anamnesis showed that none of them had signiﬁcant pre-existing health problems or smoking history.
ECG and chest radiograph did not show any alteration, whereas hematological analyses revealed
leukocytosis in all patients (15 to 34
L) with high levels of neutrophils (patients 3 and 4:
), creatine phospho-kinase (CPK; patient 1: 215 IU/L) and C-reactive protein
(CRP; patients 2, 3, and 4: 28–228 mg/L). The treatment was only supportive, consisting of oxygen
therapy and non-steroidal anti-inﬂammatory drugs (acetaminophen and diclofenac). The signs and
symptoms of poisoning disappeared within 36 h post exposure, except for dyspnea in patients 1 and 2.
Patients were discharged within 72 h from the vapor’s exposure. Patients 1 and 2 still showed dyspnea
and fatigue even after three months. Chemical analysis (liquid chromatography associated with mass
spectrometry, LC/MS) on a specimen collected from the aquarium of the poisoned patients revealed
high levels of PLTX and 42-hydroxy-PLTX (1018 µg and 46 µg/g wet coral, respectively) .
A poisoning probably due to inhalational exposure to PLTXs during soft corals handling has been
recently described in Alaska [
]. The case involved three persons: (i) patient A who transferred 32 kg
of live corals into a 758 L aquarium; (ii) patient B and (iii) patient C who were asleep in a room adjacent
to the aquarium during the coral transfer. During this operation, several coral fragments felt on the ﬂoor
causing the breaking off of some soft corals. After 7 h, all the patients experienced respiratory (dyspnea,
scratchy throat), muscular (myalgia and spasms), neurological (paresthesia, ataxia, weakness, tremors),
and gastrointestinal (nausea) symptoms. Patient A, who slept for 7 h in the room with the aquarium,
showed the most serious symptoms, including cough, nausea, headache, muscle, and joint pain. At the
hospital admission, he was tachycardic, tachypneic, and febrile (maximum temperature: 39.4
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 9 of 22
L and 86% neutrophils. Since the hematochemical parameters, the
renal function and chest radiography were within the normal range, the pharmacological treatment
was only supportive. The patient A’s symptoms disappeared within two days, whereas patients B and
C, reporting less severe symptoms, relapsed in 12 h. Genetic analysis on a soft coral sample, collected
from the same home aquarium, identiﬁed the species as Palythoa heliodiscus. HPLC analysis of the
same specimen quantiﬁed 7.3 mg PLTX equivalents/g wet weight of zoanthid and LC/MS conﬁrmed
PLTX as the main toxin .
2.2.2. Cutaneous Exposure to Palytoxins-Contaminated Soft Corals
Two human cases of adverse effects associated to skin exposure to PLTX-contaminated soft corals
are documented (Table 2). One of the ﬁrst reports on adverse effects by cutaneous exposure to soft
corals contaminated by PLTXs was anecdotally reported in the early 1960s during the second collection
of Palythoa toxica in Hawaii, from which PLTX was ﬁrstly puriﬁed [
]. Collecting the zoanthid colonies
with bare hands and feet, a researcher experienced dizziness, nausea, headache, increasing malaise
and discomfort to the hands. These symptoms, probably facilitated by small cuts and abrasions caused
by the coral collection, lasted for one week and needed supportive pharmacological treatments and
medical attention to the feet. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) analysis of P. toxica specimens
collected during this episode determined a concentration of 280 µg PLTX/g zoanthid .
Another case, described in 2008 by Hoffmann and coworkers [
], involved a man in Germany
who collapsed 16 h after handling several zoanthid colonies (Palythoa sp. and Parazoanthus sp.) in
his home aquarium. Symptoms started 2 h after contact with the cnidaria and included shivering,
myalgia, and general weakness of the extremities. Dizziness and speech disturbance were experienced
at the time of collapse. At the admission to the hospital (20 h post exposure), the man showed minor
cuts on three ﬁngers, with local inﬂammatory signs (swelling and erythema). The numbness and
paresthesias of the ﬁngers extended to the whole arm over the following 20 h. Hematochemical
analyses demonstrated slightly elevated serum levels of CPK (198 IU/L), lactate dehydrogenase (LDH,
304 IU/L), and CRP (13.8 mg/L), consistent with the developed myalgia and skeletomuscular damage.
Despite cardiovascular examination revealed a rhythmic heartbeat (83 beats/min) without murmurs
and a blood pressure within the normal range (100/70 mmHg), an abnormal electrocardiogram
(sinus rhythm of left type with an incomplete right bundle block) was recorded. After intravenous
physiological ﬂuids infusion, cardiac signs receded within the next 24 h, but paresthesia, weakness,
and myalgia persisted until discharge, 48 h later. Samples of two zoanthid colonies from the
aquarium, identiﬁed as Palythoa sp. and Parazoanthus sp., were subsequently analyzed by the hemolysis
neutralization assay, detecting high levels of PLTX only in Parazoanthus sp. (7700 hemolytic units/g,
corresponding to 2–3 mg PLTX equivalents/g wet weight).
2.3. Human Poisonings Ascribed to Palytoxins-Contaminated Soft Corals: No Direct Identiﬁcation of PLTXs in
A great number of cases describing human poisonings tentatively associated with zoanthids known
to produce PLTX-like compounds is reported in the web. The majority of these cases are anecdotally
described in aquarium hobbyist forums and blogs, so that it seems quite well known among the aquarists
that some corals could be highly toxic. However, no specimen from the involved corals was analyzed for
PLTXs, whose involvement had been hypothesized only on the basis of symptoms and the coral species
as causative agent of poisoning. Among all these cases, those documented by the scientific literature
(data sources: electronic databases PubMed, Scopus, ToxLine, and the references of identiﬁed articles)
will be discussed.
2.3.1. Inhalational Exposure to Dust or Vapors from Soft Corals
Different cases of adverse effects after inhalation of steam or dust from soft corals were reported,
without conﬁrmation of PLTX presence in these cnidarian (Table 1). The ﬁrst case tentatively ascribed
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 10 of 22
to PLTX inhalation from soft corals was anecdotally reported by Moore et al. [
]. In 1961, investigating
a soft coral identiﬁed as Palythoa carribaeorum at the University of Oklahoma, three students experienced
chills, nausea, and headache after pulverizing the sun-dried coral in a mixer. The symptoms,
probably due to the coral dust leaked out into the atmosphere, resolved within one day. Although no
experimental details were given, subsequent coral analysis identiﬁed a compound identical to PLTX
found in P. toxica and P. tuberculosa .
In 2008, a 32-years-old man, without any previous medical history including asthma or other
respiratory diseases, recurred to the Emergency Department in New York (USA) after attempting
to eradicate an infesting Palythoa coral from his aquarium with boiling water. The coral secreted
a mucous-like substance and, immediately after inhaling the foul odor steam, the man experienced
shortness of breath and chest pain. At the admission to the hospital, despite normal vital signs, he had
wheezing in all lung ﬁelds and ECG showed sinus tachycardia (110 beats/min), with no ST-T wave
changes and normal QRS and QTc intervals. His respiratory symptoms improved with three doses
of the nebulized bronchodilator albuterol, but the chest pain persisted. Since the subsequent clinical
analyses did not show elevated cardiac enzymes, dysrhythmia, or other sequelae, the patient was
discharged 24 h later. No chemical analyses were performed to identify PLTXs in the coral .
Four years later, a poisoning involving four members of a family (a 37-years-old man, his 35-years-old
wife, and their two 10-years-old twins) was described in The Netherlands. After attempting to eradicate
a zoanthid colony by boiling water, all the patients developed almost the same symptoms (fever, hypotension,
nausea, headache, shivering, and severe muscle cramps). After the admission to the emergency room, all
of them showed low blood pressure, fever >38.5
C, leukocytosis, and elevated blood levels of CRP.
All the family members recovered within 48 h, after supportive therapy. Although no analyses were
carried out to identify the zoanthid species or the presence of PLTX-like compounds, the authors
hypothesized a PLTX poisoning .
In the same period, a poisoning involving three persons (two men and one woman aged between
21 and 23 years) was described in Switzerland. Within a few minutes after soft coral introduction
in their aquarium, they developed dyspnea at rest, dry cough, nausea, headache, fever, and chills.
The patients were admitted to the hospital 2 h later and, considering their overlapping symptoms, the
clinical picture of the 23-years-old man was described as representative for the case report. His blood
pressure was normal and heart and respiratory rates were
and 25 breaths/min,
respectively. Arterial oxygen saturation breathing room air was 93% and body temperature
C. The patient showed a severe hypoxemia (pH 7.36, PaO
leukocytosis and mild increase of LDH, CRP, and procalcitonin serum levels. Two days post
exposure, fever persisted, and blood inﬂammatory parameters further increased (
CRP = 193.3 mg/L
procalcitonin = 12.82 ng/m
; leukocytes = 27.6
L). Since the respiratory symptoms
worsened on day two, high-resolution computed tomography of the chest was performed, showing
zones of patchy and pleural-based consolidation at both lung bases. A pulmonary function test carried
out three days after exposure showed a restrictive ventilatory pattern with a normal diffusion capacity,
while ﬂexible bronchoscopy revealed a diffuse bronchial swelling with clear bronchial secretion.
The broncho-alveolar lavage was slightly turbid, with an elevated cells count (705
and a predominant granulocytic inﬁltration pattern (alveolar macrophages = 46%; neutrophils = 49%;
lymphocytes = 2%; eosinophils = 3%). All the patients were discharged four days after the poisoning
but lung function tests returned within the normal range only at the follow-up visit two weeks later.
The soft coral tentatively responsible of the poisoning belonged to the genus Palythoa, but no chemical
analyses were performed to conﬁrm the presence of PLTX-like compounds .
Another case of poisoning ascribed to inhalational exposure to vapors from soft corals was reported
by Sud and co-workers [
] and subsequently deepened by Rumore and Houst [
]. It involved
ﬁve persons: a professional ﬁsh tank cleaner, the owner of a ﬁsh tank, his wife, and their two children.
Immediately after cleaning the ﬁsh tank (probably containing Palythoa corals) by boiling water, the
42-years-old ﬁsh tank cleaner experienced shortness of breath and a body temperature of 38
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 11 of 22
Six hours later, he was admitted to the emergency room, with increased temperature and leukocytosis
L). The patient was discharged, with bronchodilator (albuterol) and antibiotic
(levoﬂoxacin) therapy. The 51-years-old ﬁsh tank owner and his 35-years-old wife, both in proximity
of the tank during its cleaning, presented the same symptoms: dry cough developed shortly after
the exposure, chills, myalgia, fatigue, fever, vomiting, and paresthesia at the upper extremities.
They recurred to the emergency room 8 h after the exposure where, after showering, dry cough,
myalgia, and fatigue persisted during hospitalization (three days). Hematology and blood chemistry
analyses showed elevated white blood cells (>16
L) and a mild increase of LDH (292 and
193 IU/L) and CPK (184 and 197 IU/L),which normalized at hospital day three. The woman, who was
two months postpartum, was advised to avoid breast-feeding during her hospital stay. Additionally,
the two children were intoxicated. In particular, the three-year-old boy, who was playing close to
the ﬁsh tank during the cleaning, developed dry cough, an episode of non-bilious and non-bloody
emesis, and became fatigued. He was admitted to the emergency room with his parents 8 h after
exposure, with fever, high respiratory frequency, and tachycardia (154 beats/min). The child also
showed a marked leukocytosis (35.4
L) and elevated blood levels of LDH (331 IU/L).
The two-month-old girl, the farthest from the ﬁsh tank, was asymptomatic but presented a marked
L) and high levels of LDH (507 IU/L), venous lactate (5 mmol/L),
CPK (259 IU/L) and creatine kinase MB isoenzyme (CKMB; 7.82 ng/mL). An episode of constipation
occurred when she was switched back to the breast milk. Both children received hydration therapy
and were discharged within 48 h. In this case, no analyses were performed to detect PLTXs in the
patients serum or tissues or in the corals.
A series of adverse effects associated to inhalation of vapors from soft corals was recently reported
in Alaska by an aquarium shop owner, in collaboration with the Alaska Section of Epidemiology (SOE).
The first poisoning involved two persons admitted to the intensive care unit after cleaning a fish tank
containing zoanthids by hot water to remove polyps from a rock base. Both the persons experienced
fever, tremors, weakness, and ataxia. The first patient, a pregnant female, was subjected to a preterm
labor the day after her hospital admission and gave birth her baby at six months’ gestational age.
The second patient presented persistent pulmonary symptoms even after two years. Additionally, their
dog showed symptoms of poisoning (vomit and lethargy). The second poisoning occurred in July 2014,
when seven aquarium shop staff members dismantled a private aquarium and handled corals in the shop.
Four of them, interviewed by the SOE, experienced a bitter metallic taste after the inhalation of hot water
vapors, followed by cough, joint and muscle pain, fever, tremors, and weakness. All these symptoms
mainly resolved within the following morning. Several weeks after, two staff members referred similar
symptoms after handling the same corals and cleaning some aquarium components with hot water.
In these cases, no analyses for zoanthid identiﬁcation or PLTXs detection were carried out .
Another case involving three members of a family was recently described in New York.
A 53-years-old man, with pre-existing hypothyroidism, hyperlipidemia, psoriasis, and smoking
history, presented to the emergency room with his wife and their daughter, about 8 h after cleaning
an exotic coral from his home aquarium with hot tap water without using any protective equipment.
The coral was described by the patient as a species of Zoantharia. The man experienced the ﬁrst
symptoms 1–2 h after exposure to the vapors, including fever, chills, myalgia, and dyspnea. His wife
and his daughter, which were in adjoining basement room or upstairs in the ﬁrst ﬂoor, presented
the same but less severe symptoms and they were discharged 24 h after admission. The man’s
clinical examinations revealed tachycardia (112 beats/min), a blood pressure of 155/83 mmHg, and
a respiratory rate of
and fever (39
C). Laboratory analyses showed a leukocytosis
L). He was treated with acetaminophen and nebulized albuterol, with minimal
improvement of symptoms. The man conditions worsened needing supplemental oxygen, repeated
doses of nebulized albuterol and oral acetaminophen. The patient was transferred to intensive care
unit where he experienced worsening cough, increased generalized weakness, and malaise. On the
second in-patient day, he developed hemoptysis, while serial chest X-rays showed worsening bibasilar
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 12 of 22
After three days
of hospitalization, leukocytosis increased up to 22
L. By the
day four, the patient’s conditions improved but supplemental oxygen by face mask was still necessary.
After seven days the man was discharged with portable oxygen, an albuterol metered-dose inhaler,
and prednisone taper. He completely recovered one month after discharge. No analyses to identify the
coral or to detect PLTXs were carried out .
2.3.2. Cutaneous Exposure to Soft Corals
Only two cases of adverse effects after cutaneous exposure to zoanthids, without conﬁrmatory
analyses of PLTX involvement, are documented (Table 2). In the ﬁrst case, a 25-years-old healthy
woman, with intact skin, developed both cutaneous and systemic signs and symptoms of poisoning
after handling a zoanthid in a home aquarium without any barrier protection, such as gloves and
goggles. She experienced a metallic taste, followed by perioral paresthesia and hives on her torso
and extremities. Paresthesia and dysguesia resolved the day after exposure, but the upper lip was
edematous. The woman, admitted to the emergency room two days after exposure, presented increased
edema and pruriginous erythema at both hands, with normal sensory and motor functions, but also
urticarial rashes at bilateral upper arms, thighs, abdomen, upper chest, and back. As rashes appeared
to be histamine-mediated, the patient was treated with intravenous diphenhydramine (50 mg) in
addition to supportive corticosteroid (methylprednisolone, 125 mg) and benzodiazepine (lorazepam,
1 mg). Once the woman’s symptoms were resolved, she was discharged with ﬁve days’ oral therapy
with prednisone (40 mg) and diphenhydramine (50 mg). Also in this case, zoanthid identiﬁcation and
PLTXs detection were not performed .
The second case occurred in Georgia, where a marine aquarium hobbyist recurred to the hospital
after skin contact with a zoanthid coral. Immediately after exposure, he experienced chest pain,
lightheadedness, weakness and numbness on the left arm. At the admission, the patient presented
elevated heart rate and blood pressure, high blood levels of CPK and sinus tachycardia. The chest
pain and the numbness of the arm lasted up to 4 h after admission, while elevated CPK persisted
even 16 h later. In this case, hemolytic neutralization assay was carried out on a patient serum sample
collected 1 h after exposure. The serum exerted an hemolytic activity but, since it was not neutralized
by an anti-PLTX antibody, the hemolytic agent was not conﬁrmed as PLTX. Accordingly, HPLC and
LC/MS analyses on the serum sample did not identify any detectable compound consistent with
standard PLTX. These evidences suggest that, if a PLTX-like compound was the causative agent of
poisoning, the analyzed serum might contain possible PLTX metabolite(s) and/or PLTX analogue(s)
not detectable by the anti-PLTX antibody .
2.3.3. Ocular Exposure to Soft Corals
Three cases of adverse effects by ocular exposure to soft corals were documented and summarized in
Table 3. Two cases were described in United States by Moshirfar et al. [
]. In the first case, a 31-years-old
man, who wore soft contact lenses, developed ocular irritation and redness, as well as a bitter metallic
taste immediately after drilling a zoanthid coral from a rock in his saltwater aquarium. The day after
exposure, the man had a severe eye pain, eyelid swelling, photophobia, and a purulent discharge from
both eyes. Specific eye examination revealed maximum visual acuity, with diffuse bilateral punctate
epithelial erosions. Thus, the patient was topically treated with 0.5% moxiﬂoxacin and artiﬁcial tears.
Three days after exposure, his condition worsened: the ocular pain increased, the visual acuity declined
and he presented a signiﬁcant conjunctival hyperemia, punctate epithelial erosions in the right cornea
and a central epithelial defect with a stromal ring inﬁltrate in the left eye. Hence, 1% prednisolone
acetate (three times a day), 0.1% ﬂuorometholone ointment (at bedtime), 0.5% moxiﬂoxacin drops
(four times a day), and oral doxycycline and ascorbic acid were prescribed. However, no signiﬁcant
improvement of the left eye’s condition was observed. Thus, 1% prednisolone acetate drops were
increased to hourly doses and a therapeutic contact lens was applied. On resolution of the epithelial
defect, ﬂuoromethoxolone and moxiﬂoxacin treatments were discontinued, and the prednisolone
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 13 of 22
acetate drops were tapered over sixe weeks. The treatment with 0.05% cyclosporine drops, twice
a day for 12 weeks, also resolved the stromal ring inﬁltrate but a 30% stromal thinning remained in
the midperiphery, associated with central steeping. The second case involved a 49-years-old man,
who had undergone laser eye surgery in both eyes, four years previously. Handling zoanthid corals
without gloves, he accidentally rubbed his right eye, experiencing ocular pain, redness, and blurry
vision. After one day, the man presented a defect on visual acuity, a papillary reaction of the upper
and lower palpebral conjunctiva, a bulbar conjunctival injection, and punctate epithelial erosions of
the cornea. After a topical treatment with 0.5% moxiﬂoxacin and 1% prednisolone acetate drops, all
symptoms resolved with maximum visual acuity recovery. In both cases, no analyses to identify the
coral and to detect palytoxin were carried out .
Recently, a case of ocular exposure to a splash from a zoanthid referred as “encrusting anemone”
involved a 63-years-old man in Switzerland. Handling the zoanthid out of water, an accidental splash
into the right eye induced a local burning sensation. The man rinsed the eye with tap water for several
minutes before trying a treatment with chamomile and black tea. Two and a half hours after exposure,
the patient recurred to the Emergency Unit due to dyspnea, nausea and shivering. Upon admission,
laboratory analyses showed a high white blood cell count (20.29
L) and CRP (47.4 mg/L),
in addition to slightly elevated serum levels of CPK (261 IU/L) and LDH (267 IU/L), and positive
urine for myoglobin (39
g/L). These ﬁndings led to suppose a rhabdomyolysis, which required
monitoring in the intensive care unit and intravenous infusion of balanced crystalloid solution. On the
second day, the laboratory parameters improved and the patient was discharged. Ocular examination
showed a marked conjunctival injection and superﬁcial punctate epitheliopathy in both the eyes.
The right eye was more affected, with a multiple corneal Descemet’s folds and pH elevated to 8.5,
subsequently reduced to 7.5 by rinsing with a washing solution (Diphoterine
). The man’s visual
acuity in both eyes was reduced to counting ﬁngers. A therapy with antibiotic (0.5 moxiﬂoxacin) and
steroid (1% prednisolone acetate) drops was immediately started. On the second day, the eyes lesion
worsened: both eyes showed incomplete corneal erosions and anterior chamber reactions, the right eye
being most affected, as well as Descemet’s folds and partially avascular conjunctiva. Despite the topical
antibiotic and steroid treatment, the corneal erosions did not heal and ulcers developed one week
after exposure. Then, amniotic membrane transplantations were performed on both eyes. The cornea
healed after several weeks, with residual thinning, while the remaining irregular corneal astigmatism
was corrected four months later ﬁtting scleral contact lenses. Then, visual acuity recovered to 0.8 in the
right eye and 1.0 in the left eye .
As mentioned above, the major human poisonings ascribed to PLTX-contaminated soft corals
are described anecdotally in aquarium hobbyist web forums. Several cases are ascribed to ocular
exposure to soft corals, but a correct identiﬁcation of the involved zoanthids is often missing. Only in
a few cases, the scientiﬁc (species or genus) or the common coral’s name, such as Zoanthus gigantus,
Palythoa singaporensis,Protopalythoa sp., and Zoanthus sp., are known. Considering the different online
marine aquarium forums, 15 cases of ocular exposure to soft corals tentatively containing PLTXs can
be found. In most cases, signs and symptoms of poisoning, often consequent to handling soft corals
outside the water, were pain, redness, and swelling. Seven patients experienced corneal inﬂammation
and ulceration with partial loss of vision, while only in three cases systemic symptoms, such as nausea,
fever, and shivering, were reported. The clinical course, the duration of symptoms, and the treatment
were always unknown, except for few cases in which symptoms resolved between four days and
seven months after exposure. Signs and symptoms were often treated rinsing the eyes with water,
administering artiﬁcial tears, steroids drops, and/or antibiotics, while in one case the patient used
contact lenses for four years after exposure to correct the vision .
2.4. Pharmacological Treatments
No antidote has been developed against PLTX-like compound poisonings, so far. Consequently, no
deﬁned and harmonized medical protocols for the treatment of PLTX poisonings have been established.
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 14 of 22
In general, pharmacological treatments are symptomatic, being optimized to reduce or limit the signs
and symptoms of poisoning. Therefore, they are deﬁned case by case.
Nevertheless, pharmacological treatments in human poisonings ascribed to PLTX-contaminated
soft corals are quite detailed. Regarding poisonings due to inhalational exposure, different approaches
have been described but consisted mainly in nebulized
-agonists or corticosteroids and/or systemic
corticosteroids. Alternatively, other pharmacological approaches were based on associations of non
steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and nebulized
-agonists, or corticosteroids and histamine
antagonists combinations [
]. Adverse effects by cutaneous exposure are usually treated with supportive
intra-venous physiological ﬂuids infusion and associations of corticosteroids and antihistamines.
Similarly, the signs and symptoms of poisoning by ocular exposure are treated with artiﬁcial tears and
corticosteroids. In the latter cases, surgical interventions, such as amniotic membrane transplantations,
could be the resolving therapeutic option in case of severe eyes damages, such as keratolysis and ulcers.
In general, it has to be noted that these therapies are usually associated with antibiotics. This approach
could be useful only when the etiology is uncertain but, it is worthless when the poisonings are
certainly due to PLTXs.
3. Palytoxins in Soft Corals
3.1. Palytoxin Analogs Identiﬁed in Soft Corals
PLTX was ﬁrstly isolated from the Hawaiian soft coral Palythoa toxica [
] but it was detected also
in other species belonging to the genus Palythoa (Table 4), such as P. aff. margaritae [
], P. vestitus
from Hawaii [
], P. mammillosa and P. caribaeorum, both collected from the coral reefs of the Caribbean
]. Intriguingly, PLTXs were also identiﬁed in soft corals cultured as decorative elements
in home aquaria [
]; characteristic is the case of P. heliodiscus [
]. In addition, PLTX has been
identiﬁed in other zoanthids belonging to the genera Zoanthus and Parazoanthus, growing in colonies
close to those of Palythoa in the coral reef. Additionally, in this case, PLTX was identiﬁed both in the
wild corals (Z. sociatus and Z. soladeri)  and in corals cultured in home aquaria .
Furthermore, a series of PLTX analogs have been identiﬁed in Palythoa soft corals (Table 4).
The ﬁrstly identiﬁed analogs were homo-PLTX, bis-homo-PLTX, neo-PLTX, and deoxy-PLTX, detected
together with PLTX in P. tuberculosa [
]. Subsequently, a 42-hydroxy derivative of PLTX
(42-OH-PLTX), which structure was characterized as a 42S-OH-50S-PLTX, was identiﬁed in P. toxica [
In addition, a stereoisomer of this analogue with a conformational inversion at C50 (42S-OH-50R-PLTX)
was identiﬁed in P. tuberculosa .
It has to be noted that among the different genera of soft corals used as decorative elements in
home aquaria (i.e.,Palythoa,Zoanthus,Sarcophyton, Sinularia, Nephthya, Cladiella, and Xenia) [
Palythoa and Zoanthus genera are frequently sold without any precaution or information about their
], even though many specimens may contain high levels of PLTXs. For instance, four out
of ﬁve samples of P. heliodiscus purchased from an aquarium store in Maryland (USA) contained
high amounts of PLTX (from 613 to 1164
g/g) and one sample contained mainly deoxy-PLTX
(3515 µg/g) .
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 15 of 22
Table 4. PLTX and its analogs identiﬁed in Palythoa and Zoanthus soft corals.
Genus Species Toxin Coral Origin Detection Method References
toxica PLTX Coral reef; home
aquarium * NMR 
Coral reef; home
aquarium * LC/MS, NMR 
PLTX Coral reef
Mouse bioassay, HPLC, HPTLC,
UV detection [73–75]
Coral reef HR LC/MS, NMR 
Coral reef HPLC 
vestitus PLTX Coral reef N.D. 
margaritae PLTX Coral reef HPLC, NMR 
mammillosa PLTX Coral reef Ion exchange chromatography,
assay, HPLC [3,70]
caribaeorum PLTX Coral reef Ion exchange chromatography,
assay, HPLC [3,9,70–72]
PLTX Home aquarium HPLC, ESI-LC/MS 
42-OH-PLTX ** Home aquarium LC/MS 
caesia PLTX Coral reef Haemolysis neutralization
assay, HPLC 
N.D. PLTX Home aquarium
Haemolysis neutralization assay
assay, HPLC 
Haemolysis neutralization assay
* Unpublished results; ** Structural conformation at C50 was not reported; N.D. = not determined.
3.2. Toxicity of Palytoxin Analogs Identiﬁed in Soft Corals
Toxicological studies on PLTX analogs identiﬁed in soft corals are limited to 42-OH-PLTXs. In the
ﬁrst study, the acute oral toxicity of 42S-OH-50S-PLTX was characterized in mice [
]. After single
oral administration of 42S-OH-50S-PLTX in mice (300 to 1697
g/kg), the LD
dose) was 651
g/kg (95% conﬁdence limits, CL = 384–1018
g/kg), comparable to that of PLTX
LD50 = 767 µg/kg
; 95% CL = 549–1039
g/kg), as reported by Sosa and coworkers [
]. Following the
toxin administration, animals showed progressive signs and symptoms of toxicity, such as scratching,
jumping, paralysis of the hind limbs, respiratory distress, and cyanosis, similar to those observed
after acute oral administration of PLTX [
]. Mice that spontaneously died within 24 h showed tissue
alterations in the pancreas (decreased exocrine secretions in the acinar lumen) and liver (hepatocellular
glycogen content). In addition, alterations at the non-glandular stomach (focal inﬂammatory lesions
involving mucosa, submucosa and muscularis externa) were observed after 24 h, at doses
Hematochemistry showed a marked increase of LDH and aspartate-aminotransferase (AST) at doses
ě600 µg/kg, besides alanine-aminotransferase (ALT), CPK and K+at doses ě848 µg/kg. Although no
signiﬁcant histological alterations were observed in skeletal and cardiac muscles, the increased
concentrations of both AST and ALT, associated with the increased CPK and LDH plasma levels,
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 16 of 22
suggested these tissues as primary targets of 42S-OH-50S-PLTX, as previously recorded after acute
oral administration of PLTX in mice .
Hence, to characterize the mechanism of skeletal muscle damage, the effects of 42S-OH-50S-PLTX
were subsequently studied
on primary cultures of skeletal muscle cells. Cells exposure to
42S-OH-50S-PLTX (6 nM) induced an increased intracellular Ca
level, comparable to that induced
by the same PLTX concentration. Similarly, binding affinity of 42S-OH-50S-PLTX towards a purified
3.1 nM) was similar to that of PLTX (IC
7.0 nM), but
the two toxins displayed different sensitivity to ouabain [
]. Moreover, 42S-OH-50S-PLTX induced
an irreversible concentration-dependent cytotoxicity (EC
0.07 nM), comparable to that of PLTX
EC50 = 0.54 ˘0.07 nM
]. A short exposure to 42S-OH-50S-PLTX (10 min, 6 nM) induced a marked
inhibition of the functional cells response to acetylcholine and an increased cell volume, dependent on
. These effects were in agreement with those of PLTX [
]. Further Ca
analysis revealed that 42S-OH-50S-PLTX concentrations higher than 1 nM, caused a biphasic increase
of intracellular Ca
similar to that induced by PLTX [
]. Moreover, 42S-OH-50S-PLTX cytotoxicity
was abolished by the Ca
-free culture medium only at concentrations lower than 1 nM, indicating
a secondary role of Ca
ions in the toxin cytotoxicity. This result could represent an important
biological difference between the cytotoxic pathway evoked by 42S-OH-50S-PLTX and PLTX at the
muscular level .
studies evaluated the hemolytic activity of this toxin in mice erythrocytes, showing
a similar activity between 42S-OH-50S-PLTX and PLTX (EC50 = 7.6 ˘0.5 ˆ10´12 M and 13.2 ˘0.1 ˆ10´12 M
Considering the adverse effects associated with the cutaneous exposure to soft corals contaminated
by PLTXs, the effects of 42S-OH-50S-PLTX isolated from P. toxica were recently evaluated on HaCaT
skin keratinocytes, in comparison to those of its stereoisomer 42S-OH-50R-PLTX from P. tuberculosa [
The cytotoxicity of 42S-OH-50S-PLTX was about one order of magnitude higher than that of its
M and 9.3
M, respectively), and almost one order of
magnitude lower than that of PLTX (EC
M). This suggests that even one conformational
change in PLTX structure, such as that at C50, can signiﬁcantly inﬂuence the biological activity of these
structurally complex molecules .
Given the availability of sufﬁcient amounts of puriﬁed PLTX analogs, these results should be
investigated broader and deeper by
studies, to characterize the actual toxicological potential of
these toxins, widely found in Palythoa soft corals.
Since the 1980s, the popularity of home aquaria containing living corals has been dramatically
increased. As a result of the increased trade of live corals over the years, concern has been raised
about the impact on human health and the possible adverse effects associated with the manipulation
and maintenance of these corals. Indeed, most soft corals found in marine aquaria are collected
from the wild and, in home aquaria, they can ﬁnd the optimal conditions to grow, proliferate and,
eventually, accumulate toxic compounds. Among the different species of decorative soft corals, such as
Sarcophyton, Sinularia, Nephthya, Cladiella, Xenia, Palythoa, and Zoanthus species [
], those belonging
to the last two genera are widely used due to their colorful and ornamental features [55,78]. The latter
known to accumulate PLTX [2,54] and/or its analogs, such as 42S-OH-50S-PLTX isolated from P. toxica 
42S-OH-50R-PLTX identiﬁed in P. tuberculosa , and deoxy-PLTX isolated from P. heliodiscus .
PLTX-like compounds are largely known for their toxicity. A large number of studies, both
],have been performed in the last three decades to characterize
PLTX toxicity and the relevant mechanism of action [
]. PLTX is recognized as one of the most
toxic non-proteinaceous natural compound known, so far. Although the most harmful route of human
exposure to PLTXs is the oral intake, PLTX toxicity after inhalational and cutaneous exposure represents
a serious problem for human health, as well [
]. These exposure routes are the most frequent ones
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 17 of 22
and are involved in human poisonings postulated to PLTX-contaminated soft corals. It is noteworthy
that the main signs and symptoms referred after inhalation of hot vapors from aquaria containing soft
corals are similar to those reported after inhalational exposure to marine aerosol during Ostreopsis
blooms. Thus, the similarity of symptoms after inhalational exposure to vapors from aquaria or seawater
aerosol suggests the involvement of a common toxic agent, such as PLTXs, as supported by a recent study
in which PLTXs were found in marine aerosols during Ostreopsis blooms [
]. Similarly, the direct
effects of PLTX and PLTX-like compounds, such as 42S-OH-50S-PLTX and 42S-OH-50R-PLTX, on skin
keratinocytes demonstrate the cutaneous toxicity of these toxins [
], at the basis of the adverse
effects ascribed to PLTXs after skin contact to soft corals or to seawater containing Ostreopsis cells .
Despite the proven toxicity of PLTXs, the risks posed by keeping soft corals in home aquaria are
largely unrecognized and underestimated by aquarium hobbyists and stores owners. In addition, these
soft corals are widely sold in the aquarium trade without any warning about their toxic potential or
guidelines for their use and maintenance. Indeed, the trade of these cnidarians, which may cause severe
poisonings with significant sanitary and economic impacts, is still not regulated. Although documented
cases of PLTX poisonings due to contact with soft corals in home marine aquaria are limited, they probably
represent only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the entity of the symptoms experienced by poisoned subjects
after inhalational, cutaneous, or ocular exposure to soft corals, their secretions or vapors due to hot water
poured on these cnidarians do not always require a sanitary intervention. In addition, these poisonings
could be attributed to a different etiology. Considering this point, it is extremely important that
physicians are properly informed on the adverse effects associated with soft corals exposure in order
to diagnose and manage these kinds of poisonings. To this aim, guidelines concerning an harmonized
pharmacological protocol to be followed in these cases are required. In this view, we propose a draft
chart (Supplementary Material Figure S1) useful for the clinician to document and handle these cases
of poisoning. From literature data, the “case deﬁnition of PLTXs poisonings ascribed to soft corals”
is suggested, together with the main symptoms to be checked and the hematoclinical analyses to be
carried out. Furthermore, speciﬁc analyses on biological specimens from poisoned patients and on the
suspected soft corals are suggested as contribution to deﬁne this kind of poisoning.
Similarly, although many marine aquarium hobbyists handled zoantharians for years without any
documented PLTX-related poisonings, we strongly believe that complete information for the consumer
are necessary. Considering the extremely high toxicity of some Palythoa species, the dermotoxicity of
PLTXs and PLTX skin tumor promotion [
], we advise against handling Palythoa with bare hands,
recommending the use of protective gloves, glasses, and a breathing mask [
]. Since disposable
latex or nitrile gloves break easily in contact with sharp stone corals or rocks in aquaria, long robust
rubber gloves with protection of the forearms are the most suitable ones. Additionally, the use of boiling
water or brushing to kill the soft corals in aquaria can be dangerous and is not recommended. The safest
method of their eradication is removing undesirable Palythoa colonies along with their substrates from
aquaria and throwing them away in a safe condition, while wearing personal protective equipment.
In conclusion, the presence of the highly-toxic PLTX and/or its analogs in soft corals, widely
used as decorative elements in marine home aquaria, represents an emerging and still underestimated
sanitary problem. Once known only among the aquarium hobbyists, cases of poisoning by inhalational,
cutaneous, and/or ocular exposures, sometimes characterized by severe symptoms, are continuously
increasing in number, also in the scientiﬁc literature. A deeper characterization of these poisonings
should be provided in order to gain a complete knowledge from a toxicological and medical point of view.
This work was supported by two grants of the University of Trieste (Università degli Studi
di Trieste—Finanziamento di Ateneo per progetti di ricerca scientiﬁca—FRA 2012 and FRA 2014).
M.P. and A.T. planned and study the topic of the review; M.P. wrote Sections 1,2and 4; V.B.
wrote Section 3. S.S. critically reviewed the manuscript and all authors approved its ﬁnal version for publication.
Conﬂicts of Interest:
The authors declare no conﬂict of interest. The founding sponsors had no role in the design
of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, and in the
decision to publish the results.
Mar. Drugs 2016,14, 33 18 of 22
The following abbreviations are used in this manuscript:
creatine kinase MB isoenzyme
electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry
high performance liquid chromatography
liquid chromatography associated with mass spectrometry
dose giving 50% of lethality
nuclear magnetic resonance
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