• diagnostics;
  • evolution;
  • Karlodinium micrum;
  • PCR;
  • Pfiesteria piscicida;
  • Pfiesteria shumwayae;
  • Pfiesteria-like organisms;
  • ribosomal genes

The putative harmful algal bloom dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida (Steidinger et Burkholder), frequently co-occurs with other morphologically similar species collectively known as Pfiesteria-like organisms (PLOs). This study specifically evaluated whether unique sequences in the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) regions, ITS1 and ITS2, could be used to develop PCR assays capable of detecting PLOs in natural assemblages. ITS regions were selected because they are more variable than the flanking small subunit or large subunit rRNA genes and more likely to contain species-specific sequences. Sequencing of the ITS regions revealed unique oligonucleotide primer binding sites for Pfiesteria piscicida, Pfiesteria shumwayae (Glasgow et Burkholder), Florida “Lucy” species, two cryptoperidiniopsoid species, “H/V14” and “PLO21,” and the estuarine mixotroph, Karlodinium micrum (Leadbetter et Dodge). These PCR assays had a minimum sensitivity of 100 cells in a 100-mL sample (1 cell·mL−1) and were successfully used to detect PLOs in the St. Johns River system in Florida, USA. DNA purification and aspects of PCR assay development, PCR optimization, PCR assay controls, and collection of field samples are discussed.