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Grantee Research Project Results

Grantee Research Project Results

Effects of Contaminants on Immune Function in Seabirds

EPA Grant Number: U915730
Title: Effects of Contaminants on Immune Function in Seabirds
Investigators: Finkelstein, Myra E.
Institution: University of California - Santa Cruz
EPA Project Officer: Edwards, Jason
Project Period: September 1, 2000 through September 1, 2003
Project Amount: $79,306
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2000)
Research Category: Fellowship - Oceanography , Aquatic Ecosystems , Academic Fellowships



The objective of this research project is to evaluate, test, and apply methods for immunologic function to determine if chronic environmental contamination has a measurable deleterious effect on immune function in wild seabirds. The specific null hypothesis is that contaminant exposure has no measurable effect on immune function in wild seabirds.


This research approach has three distinct components. The first is to develop and evaluate methods to assess immune function in a wild population of seabirds. This includes the development of methods to assess immune function on cryo-preserved avian white blood cells (WBCs). For this, the following protocols were established: (1) an optimal method for the isolation of monocytes and lymphocytes from avian peripheral blood for use in immune function tests; (2) cryo-preservation of isolated WBCs for later assessment of immune function; (3) a non-radioactive method to assess cell proliferation for use in a mitogen-induced cell proliferation assay; and (4) an assay to assess phagocytic ability of plated monocytes. To validate these protocols and assess their sensitivity for detecting effects, an in vitro contaminant exposure experiment was conducted using the mitogen-induced lymphocyte proliferation and phagocytosis assays on cryo-preserved avian WBC. The second component of this research is to identify a population of seabirds exposed to contaminants that can be used to evaluate the relationship between immune function and contaminant exposure. After measurement of contaminant body burdens in one species of waterfowl (American Coot) and four different species of seabirds (Red-tailed Tropicbird, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Black-footed Albatross, Laysan Albatross), it was determined that Laysan and Black-footed Albatross are exposed to significant levels of contaminants and are ideal to assess the use of immune function as a marker of contaminant exposure. On Midway Atoll (a decommissioned military base) Laysan Albatross chicks are exposed to elevated levels of lead from local contamination, and Black-footed Albatross are exposed to elevated levels of synthetic organics and mercury (from dietary input). The third component of this research is to evaluate if immune function, using the developed assays, is impaired by chronic contamination in a population of wild seabirds. The evaluation of immune function will be assessed in vitro on cryo-preserved WBCs and in vivo using a delayed-type hypersensitivity test. These results will be used to determine the efficacy of using immune function as a marker of contaminant exposure.

Expected Results:

Contaminant exposure will be shown to have no measurable effect on immune function in wild seabirds. The research will extend current methodologies available to environmental managers for the evaluation of contaminant exposure effects.

Supplemental Keywords:

immune function, avian, toxics, exposure, risk, cleanup, seabirds, biomarker, remediation, effects, ecological effects, animal, population, stressor, toxic substances, heavy metals, synthetic organics, lead, mercury., RFA, Health, Scientific Discipline, Water, Ecosystem Protection/Environmental Exposure & Risk, wildlife, Oceanography, Risk Assessments, Biochemistry, Ecological Risk Assessment, Ecology and Ecosystems, Molecular Biology/Genetics, Biology, Mercury, seabirds, aromatic solvents, lead, animal model, immune function, bioassays, birds, avian research

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The perspectives, information and conclusions conveyed in research project abstracts, progress reports, final reports, journal abstracts and journal publications convey the viewpoints of the principal investigator and may not represent the views and policies of ORD and EPA. Conclusions drawn by the principal investigators have not been reviewed by the Agency.

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