Monitor natural and freshwater toxins

Mass spectrometry (MS) is a powerful technique for analyzing biotoxins1 because of its high selectivity, its high dynamic linear range and its ability to quantify many potent hepatotoxins—including microcystins and nodularins in natural blooms, cyanobacterial strains, fish and other biological samples—in a single analysis run.2-3

A phenomenon called eutrophication promotes the natural occurrence of harmful cyanobacterial blooms in freshwater and marine ecosystems.4 These blooms produce toxic metabolites that have diverse structural and physicochemical properties. Frequently detected cyanotoxins include microcystins, nodularins, cylindrospermopsin and neurotoxins, which increasingly threaten the ecosystem and human health.5 While these blooms of toxic cyanobacteria species are present in various surface water sources, the primary route of exposure for most people is through drinking water, which can result in consumption advisories from regulatory authorities.6-8

For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) provisional guideline for microcystin-LR (MC-LR) is a limit of 1 μg/L.9 The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 10-day drinking water health advisory for MC-LR is a limit of 0.3 μg/L for infants and children up to 6 years old, and 1.6 μg/L for adults.10 In Canada, the maximum acceptable concentration (MAC) of MC-LR is 1.5 μg/L.11

Traditionally, surface waters have been analyzed for these toxins using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) with ultra-violet (UV) detection or other methodologies such as gas chromatography (GC). However, these approaches have limitations, especially when it comes to potential cross-contamination, which could lead to a high risk of false positives.

A shift to mass spectrometry for detecting biotoxins 

With the diversity in chemical structures of natural toxins in the environment, liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) is an ideal tool for the comprehensive analysis of a wide scope of toxins, including microcystins, in a single analysis.

Using LC-MS/MS enables:

  • Enhanced sensitivity for lower-level toxin detection
  • Better performance by simplifying sample preparation and enabling a faster time to results
  • Improved ruggedness to accommodate diverse sample types
  • Higher specificity for the improved accuracy and reliability of results

To learn more about SCIEX solutions for mycotoxin and natural toxin detection in food and feed, click here.


  1. Flores, C.; Caixach, J. An integrated strategy for rapid and accurate determination of free and cell-bound microcystins and related peptides in natural blooms by liquid chromatography–electrospray-high resolution mass spectrometry and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight/time-of-flight mass     spectrometry using both positive and negative ionization modes. Journal of Chromatography A 2015, 1407, 76–89. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2015.06.022
  2. Cameán, A.; Moreno, I. M.; Ruiz, M. J.; Picó, Y. Determination of microcystins in natural blooms and cyanobacterial strain cultures by matrix solid-phase dispersion and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 2004, 380(3), 537–544. doi:  10.1007/s00216-004-2755-2  
  3. Moreno, I. M.; Molina, R.; Jos, A.; Picó, Y.; Cameán, A. M. Determination of microcystins in fish by solvent extraction and liquid chromatography. Journal of Chromatography A 2005, 1080(2), 199–203. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2005.05.029
  4. Corbel, S.; Mougin, C.; Bouaïcha, N. Cyanobacterial toxins: Modes of actions, fate in aquatic and soil ecosystems, phytotoxicity and bioaccumulation in agricultural crops. Chemosphere 2014, 96, 1–15. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2013.07.056
  5. Sanseverino, I.; Conduto, D.; Pozzoli, L.; Dobricic, S.; Lettieri, T. Algal bloom and its economic impact; EUR 27905; European Commission, Joint Research Centre: Ispra VA, Italy, 2016.
  6. Buratti, F. M.; Manganelli, M.; Vichi, S.; Stefanelli, M.; Scardala, S.; Testai, E.; Funari, E. Cyanotoxins: Producing organisms, occurrence, toxicity, mechanism of action and human health toxicological risk evaluation. Archives of Toxicology 2017, 91(3), 1049–1130. doi: 10.1007/s00204-016-1913-6
  7. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Ground Water and Drinking Water: Drinking Water Health Advisory Documents for Cyanobacterial Toxins
  8. Makarewicz, J. C.; Boyer, G. L.; Lewis, T. W.; Guenther, W.; Atkindson, J.; Arnold, M. Spatial and temporal distribution of the cyanotoxin microcystin-LR in the Lake Ontario ecosystem: Coastal embayments, rivers, nearshore and offshore, and upland lakes. J. Great Lakes Res. 2009, 35, 83–89. doi: 10.1016/j.jglr.2008.11.010
  9. World Health Organization. Cyanobacterial toxins: Microcystin-LR in drinking-water. Background document for preparation of WHO Guidelines for drinking-water quality. World Health Organization, 2003.
  10. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Drinking Water Health for the Cyanobacterial Microcystin Toxins; EPA Document Number 820R15100; United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Health and Ecological Criteria Division: Washington, DC, 2015.
  11. Government of Canada, Health Canada. Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Cyanobacterial Toxins



Detection of microcystin and nodularin toxins with specificity and mass accuracy

X500R QTOF System

This easy-to-use accurate mass spectrometer system analyzes data faster using the power of SWATH® Acquisition.

SCIEX OS Software

This all-in-one software lets you acquire, process and analyze data, and even generate reports.

QTRAP® systems

Use the MRM sensitivity of a triple quadrupole system to get even better identification and quantification.

All-In-One HR-MS/MS Library Version 2.0 with NIST

Access more 17,000 compounds available at the click of a button.


Learning Center  
High resolution quantitation of microcystins and nodularin on SCIEX X500R QTOF System Download
Quantitation of microcystins and nodularins in water samples using LC-MS/MS Download
Analysis of selected microcystins in drinking and surface water using a highly sensitive direct injection technique Download
Simultaneous determination of 14 paralytic shellfish toxins using LC-MS/MS on the SCIEX QTRAP® 6500+ System Download
Chemical labeling strategy and LC-MS/MS analysis of amine-containing neurotoxin in sharks’ fins Download