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Women in Science: FWRI’s Dr. Jan Landsberg

Research Scientist Dr. Jan Landsberg has always had an inquisitive mind and an interest in biology. After completing her degrees in her home country of England, she worked in a fish disease lab in Israel. After a stop at the University of North Carolina, she began working for FWC over 30 years ago.

Jan has been at the forefront of solving many of Florida’s ecological puzzles. One of the most interesting cases she worked on involved toxic pufferfish living in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). Anglers from New Jersey caught pufferfish in the IRL, brought them home, ate them, and got very sick. Jan and her colleagues initially presumed the illness was from naturally occurring tetrodotoxins in pufferfish livers, but she was informed that the toxins found were saxitoxins. After initial investigation of the pufferfish fillet in the NJ case, a Canadian scientist determined that the culprit was saxitoxin, which, like tetrodotoxins, can be deadly if consumed. Jan and a team of state and federal scientists set out to discover the source of the saxitoxins in the pufferfish. They discovered that one of the algae in the IRL, known as Pyrodinium bahamense, was responsible for producing the saxitoxins, possibly due to environmental changes in the region or nutrient loading. Jan has found circumstantial evidence that pufferfish with saxitoxins had been found in the IRL as early as the 1950s. To prevent people from eating the toxic pufferfish meat, the FWC placed a ban on puffer fishing in the IRL that is still upheld today.

In recent years Jan and colleagues have worked to better understand stony coral tissue-loss disease. She shared that corals can be difficult to work with because of their hard skeletons. When examining the corals microscopically using a process called histology, the skeleton must first be dissolved to see the soft tissues inside. This process lets researchers see how the disease is affecting the coral, and how it can damage the delicate tissues of the animal. She has examined tissue samples from healthy and diseased corals, comparing their cellular structure and searching for any possible associated microorganisms. She also compares tissue samples from diseased parts of a coral and seemingly unaffected areas. This has allowed Jan and partners to discover that disease lesions are initially forming deeper inside corals even if they are not initially visible externally. She has also observed that the disease appears to begin close to the coral’s gastrovascular canal and spreads towards the surface of the animal. While the cause of the disease is not fully known, the leading theory is that bacteria (or another microorganism) or several microorganisms working together are responsible. Jan and her colleagues are currently learning more about how the disease works, how it is caused, and how it can be prevented.

To support Jan’s work solving the critical mysteries affecting our environment, donate here.

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