Marine mammals: pollutants caught in the act!


Observing the effect of pollutants on animals in their natural environment is not easy. And it’s even more complicated when they live in the ocean. The method developed by Cathy Debier’s team to collect and store living tissue for a few days will enable scientists to assess the impact of plastics and other pollutants on the biology of marine mammals.

How do plastics and other pollutants in the oceans affect marine mammals? Studying their effects on whales, dolphins, sea lions and other mammals is not an easy task, owing to both practical and ethical reasons. However, it’s essential to know the extent of the damage and the consequences of ocean pollutants for the biology of these animals in order to effectively ensure their protection and conservation.

Keeping tissue alive in the laboratory would allow the effect of pollutants to be analysed effectively while minimising the impact on the animals. However, when scientists are able to take tissue, it’s either from animals that are already dead or the tissue taken is rapidly altered and loses its ‘normal’ function. This made it impossible to observe how pollutants act within living tissues and cells, just as they would in the animal’s natural environment.

It’s not impossible anymore. Cathy Debier’s team has developed a method that keeps adipose tissue (subcutaneous fat) alive and functional for up to five days after removal. Their results have been published in Frontiers in Physiology. Researchers* at UCLouvain LIBST developed the method in collaboration with the University of California Santa Cruz and Sonoma State University, using elephant seal subcutaneous fat as a model. But the method can be applied to any marine mammal as well as to other animals, such as polar bears, which are a highly endangered species. The method is also being developed on another model, pigs, whose tissues are used to understand the impact of endocrine disruptors or for cancer research. This is a major breakthrough that opens up new prospects for both environmental protection and human health!

Watch this video to learn how Cathy Debier and LIBST PhD student Laura Pirard collect tissue samples from elephant seals in their natural environment and analyse them using the new method:

* This work was developed in collaboration with Prof. Jean-François Rees and UCLouvain students Marie Verhaegen and Laura Pirard as part of their BBMC internship and bioengineering dissertation. Ms Pirard is now doing a PhD thesis on the subject and will return to the field in California in January 2022.

Published on April 14, 2021