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The Evolving Science of Oil Toxicology

Dr. John Stegeman of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institute

Photo Credit: Common Good Productions

Fifty years ago, scientists studied the heath impact of oil on fish by dousing them in oil and observing what happened.

The results were alarming. Cancers, tumors, reduced growth rates, and death were the results of acute exposure to oil.

Over the last thirty years, our scientific approach has evolved.

Dr. John Stegeman, an environmental toxicologist and the director of the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health, has been studying a bio-marker that “lights up” when a marine organism is exposed to the toxins in oil.

For the last 30 years, Dr. Stegeman has been collecting deep-sea fish from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This is a place that is thought to be one of the purest on earth because it is so far removed from human contact and intense coastal sources of pollution.

Dr. Stegeman’s goal is to see if and how these fish are being affected by oil.

The way they he does this is by studying a protein, known as Cytochrome P4501A (CYP1A), which acts as a biological indicator of exposure to toxins.

When living organisms are exposed to the toxins in oil, they respond at the cellular level by producing CYP1A in an effort to detoxify the pollutants.

Research into CYP1A and oil pollutio at Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institute

Photo Credit: Common Good Productions

However, the release of CYP1A creates a cascade of effects, which may include influencing which genes are “turned on” in the DNA.

Dr. Stegeman’s research shows that these fish, in what should be one of the cleanest areas of ocean on earth, are displaying clear signs of toxic exposure.

This exposure may be causing serious genetic side effects.

He suspects that the toxic chemicals in oil may be damaging genes linked to reproductive fertility and growth rates as well as increasing susceptibility to cancer.