June 30, 2014

Colleen Devlin, Mizzou Advantage Director of Marketing and Communications, 573-884-4953
Saint Louis Zoo, 314-781-0900 Ext. 4633, 4639 or 4703


A proposed research study involving scientists from the University of Missouri (MU), United States Geological Survey, Westminster College and the Saint Louis Zoo is being funded by a one-year $250,000 grant from The Mizzou Advantage initiative. This study of the impact of endocrine disruptors was one of 39 selected for funding among 100 research proposals requesting support from MU.

The Mizzou Advantage initiative focuses on projects that encourage interdisciplinary scholarship and have the potential to elevate the stature of the University. The Mizzou Advantage also offers grant recipients support in attracting additional funds from foundations, private donors or industry partners.

The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth, response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior and the ability to reproduce. Over the past 60 years, a growing number of synthetic chemicals have been used in the production of almost everything purchased—from plastics and resins to pharmaceuticals. Many have been identified as endocrine disrupting compounds.

"Exposure to these chemicals that mimic and can interfere with natural hormones adversely affect human and animal health—particularly reproductive and neural systems," said Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld, Bond Life Sciences Center researcher and Associate Professor in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Missouri. "Even more concerning is that studies have shown that not only will the first exposed generation be adversely affected, but future generations of individuals who were not directly exposed to these chemicals will also experience the impact of endocrine disruptors."

Researchers for this study are conducting the first comparative "cross taxa" analysis to evaluate how these chemicals change the way genes are expressed in species ranging from fish to turtles to mice.

Following experimental exposure to endocrine disruptors in utero or in ovo, and then by evaluating for biochemical and physical changes, the researchers hope to determine the mechanisms that drive the detrimental impacts from these compounds.

Their hypothesis is that the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA) induces changes to DNA across vertebrate classes—changes that may extend to, and account for, potential pathological changes in humans.

In testing this hypothesis, researchers are exposing female mice or the eggs of turtles and fish to environmentally relevant doses that mirror current exposure levels for both animals and humans.

"Data from our 2013 pilot study with painted turtles showed that embryonic exposure to low doses of BPA produced disorganized male gonads with ovarian-like components. These anatomical changes may have broader reproductive consequences and adversely affect a group of vertebrates already in decline" said Dr. Dawn Holliday, Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Westminster College and co-principal investigator on the project.

Capitalizing on the already existing research strengths at the University of Missouri and collaborating institutes, researchers involved in this study are trying to determine if heritable changes in gene activity in male germ cells are associated with these anatomical alterations. They are also trying to determine if these changes occur across taxa—if so, similar changes would likely occur in exposed human populations.

"Findings will have direct relevance not only to wildlife species that are exposed to these chemicals through various aquatic and terrestrial sources but also to humans," said Dr. Sharon Deem, Director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine. "Clearly, these results will be of interest both to institutes that focus on the impact of environmental changes on human health and to wildlife conservation organizations focused on saving animals in the wild."

About the partners:

Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine: To address the challenges associated with the growing interconnections between the health of humans and the animal kingdom, the Saint Louis Zoo established the Institute for Conservation Medicine in 2011. The Saint Louis Zoo's conservation medicine research focuses on diseases that affect the conservation of threatened and endangered wildlife species.

United States Geological Survey (USGS): The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help us provide timely, relevant, and useable information.

University of Missouri-Columbia Mizzou Advantage Program. Mizzou Advantage fosters interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty, staff, students and external partners to address and solve real-world needs and problems in four areas of strength identified at the University of Missouri (Food for the Future; Media of the Future, One Health/One Medicine, and Sustainable Energy.) With a wide array of expertise and resources all located on the same campus and by focusing on real-world problems, the program's collaborative networks secure external funding, recruit top students, attract prominent scholars and scientists, create jobs, and improve quality of life.

Westminster College: Westminster College encompasses 86 acres and is one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States. The Wallace H. Coulter Science Center, an award winning state of the art academic building includes 80,000 square feet of high tech teaching space, individualized research facilities and personalized learning areas. Westminster is the home of the Winston Churchill Memorial & Library in the United States.
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