MO Press: Sperm & salamanders

wes_von_papineäu

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POST-DISPATCH (St Louis, Missouri) 03 February 08 Sperm & salamanders (Jeffrey Bonner of the St Louis Zoo)
If you're a young man — say a twentysomething — or you know a young man in that age range, it's a pretty safe bet that he's half the man his grandfather was. That's about how much sperm counts have fallen in industrialized nations over the last 50 years.
When the first definitive study of declining sperm counts was published in the British Medical Journal in 1992, it caused quite a furor. Studies since then have shown that sperm counts are continuing their steady decline, though not at the same rate everywhere. In Minneapolis, for example, the sperm counts are dropping fairly slowly.
But in rural Missouri, they're going down more rapidly.
I find this a little scary. I'm not just worried for my son, a twentysomething who lives in rural Missouri, but also for me. Sperm counts aren't falling because guys are wearing underwear that's too tight or spending too much time in the hot tub, although those two things certainly can cause sperm counts to drop. I'm worried because industrialized nations all over the world are experiencing something that is causing a clear deterioration in our overall health.
The declining sperm counts are just a symptom of a much bigger problem — a problem that affects us if we are male or female, young or old.
In 2003, the authors of a study of Missouri men found a strong link between trace amounts of herbicides in the men's urine and the quality of their semen. The authors concluded that men were exposed to the herbicides through public drinking water.
Missouri's fast flowing streams are not just a ready source of drinking water in rural areas, but they're also home to both subspecies of a wonderfully ugly — and startlingly large — amphibious salamander called a hellbender. Hellbenders grow to about a foot long, hide under flat rocks while breathing through their skin and can live up to 50 years. They are especially fond of the rivers in which we like to canoe. In fact, Missouri canoeists have probably passed over dozens of hellbenders without knowing they were there.
About 12 years ago, scientists realized that our native hellbenders had virtually stopped reproducing. The mature ones were doing fine, but offspring were not being born in substantial numbers.
The Missouri Department of Conservation began to bring wild-caught hellbenders to the St. Louis Zoo for our reproductive scientists to examine. The females seemed to have plenty of eggs, but the males had poor sperm counts and high numbers of abnormal sperm. Because hellbenders spend virtually all their lives in the water, it could well be that whatever has made the male hellbender's sperm go bad is having much the same effect on us.
In laboratory tests, trace amounts of herbicides (which are present in the bodies of rural Missouri men) can cause male frogs to turn into hermaphrodites, creatures with male and female sex organs. Worse, the herbicides can cause those changes at concentrations of about one-tenth of a part per billion — 30 times lower than those deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Of equal concern is many of the common drugs we consume. Their contents pass through our bodies, into sewage treatment plants and back into our rivers and streams. Estrogen, the active ingredient in many birth control pills, is one of these. In frogs, low levels of estrogen cause exposed tadpoles to become female; under normal conditions, half develop female and half develop male.
So what is in the water that's harming our hellbenders? Could it be pesticides or herbicides? Growth hormones from cattle seeping into our watersheds? Estrogen?
Let's think about that last one a minute. It wouldn't take much estrogen, and there are a lot of canoeists. Most canoeists are young, that is to say of breeding age. Many of those breeding-age canoeists are females, and odds are many of those are on the pill. Canoeists can drink a lot on hot days on the river, and portable restrooms are few and far between. So, could estrogen present in female canoeists' urine be the culprit in the hellbenders' decline?
We don't know for certain. Estrogen is a possibility, but it is likely that multiple factors are at work altering the water quality. Because the bodies of hellbenders, like all amphibians, are like sponges, soaking up everything in their watery world, they are highly susceptible to changes in their environment.
At the Zoo, we're taking the first steps toward finding out exactly what's harming these incredible amphibians. In the basement of the herpetarium you'll find a replica of a Missouri stream. The temperature, oxygen levels, depth and current are timed to precisely mimic real conditions. Sprinklers come on to mimic rain and the light levels are adjusted to reflect the seasonal fluctuations in the length of daylight. Eight hellbenders live under large flat rocks, darting out to catch the crayfish that make up much of their diet in the Zoo and in the wild.
Last year, for the first time in history, females in our stream laid eggs and the males battled one another for the privilege of fertilizing them. One canny female stole some of the eggs, probably to cluster them around her own eggs so that a predator would eat her rival's first.
Unfortunately, none of the eggs hatched. We're hopeful that this year they will hatch, and we'll make history again. If we can get regular breeding and regular hatching, we can begin to subtly alter the water quality and measure the effects on the males' sperm, the females' eggs, and the number of offspring produced. Only then can we hope to unravel the mystery of why hellbenders have all but stopped reproducing in the wild.
At the same time, our nutrition scientists are intently studying and analyzing the diets of wild hellbenders. Perhaps the secret lies not in the water per se, but in what lives in the water that forms the hellbenders' diet. In St. Louis, our drinking water comes primarily from two rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. The headwater of the Mississippi is in Minnesota, which, as mentioned earlier, has more virile men than in much of Missouri.
We're proud of our water quality in St. Louis, but we're quite a ways downstream from the headwater. By the time you pour a glass of tap water from your kitchen faucet, you have no way of telling what elements that water has collected or how well it was treated on its way downstream.
We need to pay much more attention to what we're putting into our water, whether they be small streams or mighty rivers. We need to be careful of how we dispose of our waste oil, paint and solvents, careful of how much water we consume, careful to practice the best agricultural practices possible. We need to consider that a tiny bit of something that someone has poured (or excreted) into the water upstream can easily enter our bodies. And a tiny bit of something we put in our water can be ingested by someone in New Orleans.
Why should anyone care about hellbenders? They are like the canaries in the coal mine. Our hellbenders and our frogs are giving us a warning: We can no longer treat our rivers and streams like giant natural sewers. Their power to self-cleanse is nearing — or has already passed — its limit. We can choose to swim in a stream; they can't. They live there.
If our Missouri streams are no longer safe for hellbenders to live in, how long will it be before it is unsafe for us to swim in them?
Jeffrey Bonner is president of the St. Louis Zoo.
http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/li...C95A9CCF0E2A09DA862573E000729B91?OpenDocument
 

John

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Very nice and interesting article. Nothing new here though really - science has known for decades that this happens and is happening around the world. If they won't do anything significant to counter Global Warming, I doubt they'll do much about traces of herbicides, esotrogens/pseudo-estrogens, fertilizers and heavy metals in water sources. Unless it jumps up and bites a politician on the ***, he/she doesn't really give a damn.
 

paris

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Shem Unger's thesis on exactly this

for my senior seminar i did my report on Shem Ungers MS thesis "Sperm production and larval development in hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis and C. a. bishopi): a comparison of declining and stable populations" (2003)

this addresses the problem and gives a distinct agent as primary suspect of sperm decline: Atrazine (2-chloro-4-(ethylamine)-6-(isopropylamine)-s-triazine). this is a broad leaf herbicide used in crop production. it is noted in his paper that the men who live in those watersheds where this agent is used have low sperm counts.

the link to canoeists and estrogen is far fetched, many pharmaceuticals remain bioactive after they pass through us and many other 'harmless' chemicals will become bioactive when exposed to UV or heat from wastewater treatment. it would be interesting to see on a map the relation to wastewater effluent and these problems. but again, those drinking from well water in those regions are getting their atrazine diretly also as it has long ago invaded the ground water...in fact it is #2 on the list of chemicals most found in groundwater(http://www.epa.gov/OGWDW/dwh/c-soc/atrazine.html) for the nation.

the EPA site does not mention low sperm counts but others do (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/04/0427_050427_strangedays3.html) , data is from the paper " Semen Quality in Relation to Biomarkers of Pesticide Exposure" (abstract is avail here)-(http://www.ehponline.org/docs/2003/6417/abstract.html) this data is not confirmed by lab results but the full methodology of the lab testing isnt stated (from my experience mice usually arent treated for prolonged periods of time) (http://extoxnet.orst.edu/pips/atrazine.htm). other data does disagree (http://www.nrdc.org/health/pesticides/natrazine.asp) -look on this site for the abstract links below the chart to its effects on amphibian sexual abnormalities, read the article though for what the researcher had to do to get that data published. is the difference that of amphibian effect and mammal effect?....


what ever the reason it is more of a problem for the hellbender since the humans can still reproduce, mate frequently , seek out infertility clinics and are in no short supply.
 

michael

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This is an interesting article. I think they lost a lot of credibility when they started talking about women canoeists peeing in the river.
 
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