About Brittany Cummings

I am a masters student at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, OR, under the guidance of Dr. Peterson and Dr. Needoba. I have a strong background in marine and freshwater ecology and invertebrate taxonomy along the Pacific coast of North America. I acquired my skills over many years of intertidal work at the University of Washington, published freshwater research in Alaska, longterm dataset collection and analysis for collaborative non-profit/NOAA research in the Gulf of the Farallones, and biomechanical cell research at UC Berkeley. I also have unique industry experience at a Biotek company and am excited to apply these skills to the field of aquatic science for the first time. I love all things water and fill up my free time with swimming and outdoor adventures. Thanks to the collaborative goals of OHSU, I'm thrilled to finally be able to combine my passion for marine science with my desire to help others.

PAM, the love of my life.

Hello Everyone,

I will not be graduating until early 2018, so this is not my last post as an Oregon Sea Grant Scholar. However, this IS my last post as a Robert E. Malouf Scholar. With that in mind, I decided I would give a taste of what I have been doing this summer, but leave the “whole shebang” for my final post.

Recall, my project is characterizing metformin, a pharmaceutical drug, as a contaminant of emerging concern (CEC) in the lower Columbia River estuary. Fully characterizing a CEC in the environment should obviously include an ecosystem component. Thanks to the Malouf scholarship, I am currently exploring the effects of metformin on the lower food web.

This summer is best described as a series of never-ending lab experiments and instrumentation. It turns out that testing the effect of metformin on phytoplankton and microbes is harder than it looks! Currently, my lab bench looks like an explosion of flasks, vials, pipettes, and sediment. Like most scientists, I spend more of my time washing and prepping experiments than I do actually collecting data – an unromantic fact of the scientific existence that the public tends to ignore. I will focus on my phytoplankton work, since the microbe experiments are currently taking an unexpected turn (more on that in the future!).

Most of my phytoplankton work has revolved around the PAM fluorometer – an awesome device that measures the kinetics of fluorescence in photosynthetic cells.

The simple beauty of PAM.

If you recall basic photobiology, photosynthesis (the production of energy from sunlight) works through an electron transport chain that takes place in the thylakoid membrane of chloroplasts in photosynthetic cells. Pigment molecules (e.g. chlorophyll b, xanthophylls, or carotenes) within a membrane photosystem (Photosystem II) absorbs photon energy from sunlight. This energy is used to excite electrons donated by oxygen in water. The excited electrons are held less strongly by the oxygen nucleus and escape into a “pigment funnel” (i.e. antenna complex), where it is passed from pigment molecule to pigment molecule toward an ultimate electron acceptor (i.e. chlorophyll a) at the reaction center of the photosystem. The chain continues after the electron is shuttled to another photosystem (Photosystem I) and a different electron acceptor. The electron will ultimately be used in the production of NADPH and a proton gradient that fuels ATP synthase to produce energy.

The concept of photosynthesis: an electron from water is excited to a higher energy state and escapes into Photosystem II where it is passed from pigment molecule to pigment molecule until it hits an ultimate electron acceptor. The electron is then passed through an intermembrane system to Photosystem I where it is funneled to another electron acceptor and eventually used to reduce NADP+ to NADPH. This forms an intermembrane proton gradient that drives ATP synthase and the production of energy.

In a nutshell, the PAM fluorometer stimulates and measures this process by delivering light pulses to a water sample containing photosynthetic cells (algae, in my case). Recall, photosynthesis is based on the idea of an excited electron losing energy. Whenever an excited electron moves to a lower energy state, it must release energy. This energy is released in the form of long wavelength fluorescence, which can be measured by a fluorometer. By measuring minimum and maximum fluorescence in response to a series of light pulses, the PAM fluorometer can measure electron transport rate and non-photosynthetic quenching processes (e.g. energy lost via heat, instead of fluorescence). In my case, this is perfect for looking at the effect of a chemical compound on photosynthetic efficiency.

My labmate jokingly dubbed the PAM fluorometer a “magic box”, however, there is a scary amount of truth to that term. The PAM fluorometer is an amazingly compact device that can measure an amazing number of photosynthetic processes. People tend to take it for granted since it appears simplistic: turn it on, insert sample, measure photosynthesis, and you’re done! WRONG.

There are so many quirks to the device. First off, the manual. Or, should I say, manuals. Part of one topic will be explained in one manual, but an important note on the same topic will be explained in the other manual. Confusing is an understatement. Let’s not mention the calibration protocol which cost me a month of fiddling.

As a result, I have learned the PAM fluorometer from the inside out. Some examples of what I have learned over the past three months: (1) there is an optimum time to “dark-adapt” samples to make sure photosystems are completely receptive to light (i.e. completely empty of electrons), (2) far-red light should also be used to fully oxidize Photosystem I and the intersystem electron transport chain to maximize electron receptivity, (3) the sample should be diluted until the fluorescence value does not exceed a maximum value, and (4) the sample cuvette has an optimum volume and should be cleaned with ethanol in between samples to prevent obscured light paths. These are just some of the many things that I had to learn by trial and error through countless failed phytoplankton experiments.

I am aware that this entire post is about the PAM fluorometer, but it has arguably been my greatest achievement this summer. I am proud that I am mastering such a deceptively complicated device. By the end of this project, I plan on having written a detailed calibration protocol and detailed illustration of the PAM fluorometer so that future lab members can easily take measurements without a similar summer of trial and error. The long process was a blessing in disguise though – I truly have a better grasp on photosynthesis and fluorometry instrumentation.

What about the results? Well, if you don’t make it to the CERF conference this year, you will have to wait for my last blog post. I am currently doing my fine-tuned toxicity experiments with Chlorella vulgaris (a basic green algae) and will be performing the same experiments with Thalassiosira weissflogii (a diatom, which tends to be more sensitive). This should give us a good idea of the effect of metformin on the photosynthetic processes of two representative organisms in the Columbia River estuary.

Stay tuned.

Protists, Pathogens, and Fungus… oh my!

I’m using this blog post as an excuse to take a detour from my usual research and explore the tantalizing world of protists. Studying nothing but microbes and chemical compounds for the past year has given me an excitement for small aquatic critters of all kinds. You are officially about to become a sounding board to the army of thoughts and large confusing taxonomic names that are assaulting my brain. Bear with me and you might find yourself similarly enthralled!

It started with reading a paper on the ecology of Labyrinthulomycetes (Raghukumar 2002) as I was studying the topic of disease in eelgrass. Recently, I have been doing a lot of research on seagrass for classwork and personal interest (“NERD!”). I find seagrass meadows particularly fascinating since they are the most common coastal ecosystem on the planet, sequester 12x more carbon than terrestrial forests, provide habitat for thousands of species, and filter contaminated water in temperate AND tropical coastal/estuarine ecosystems. I think of seagrass meadows as “unsexy” coral reefs (“NERD!”).

Common eelgrass (Zostera marina) is a type of seagrass that often suffers from the parasitic disease called Eelgrass Wasting Disease. Labyrinthula zosterae is a marine protist that causes this disease by destroying the photosynthetic ability of eelgrass leaves through lesion formation. The L. zosterae protist is actually symbiotic if the host is unstressed. As soon as the host becomes stressed (due to any number of factors, such as salinity, temperature, light, etc.) L. zosterae quickly turns pathogenic and produces lesions on the plant. Labyrinthulomycota is the marine protist group under which L. zosterae is found, hence the interest in the Raghukumar paper.

Before we move on, let’s define protists. Protists are any eukaryotic organisms that are not plants, animals, or fungi – they are typically microscopic unicellular organisms. There are four groups that comprise protists: protozoa, slime molds, water molds, and algae. Labyrinthulomycetes are marine slime molds that produce a network of filaments or tubes (“ectoplasmic net”) which they use for movement or nutrient absorption. Interestingly, they are actually more closely related to algae (i.e. diatoms, other phytoplankton, and kelp) than they are to other slime molds.

Enter the chaos. Labyrinthulomycota comprises two groups of marine protists: labyrinthulids (e.g. L. zosterae) and thraustochytrids. Labyrinthulids are typically endobionts (organisms that live within another organism), while thraustochytrids are epibionts (organisms that live on the surface of another organism). My current research is interested in the effects of pharmaceutical contaminants on phytoplankton, so I started thinking about effects of contaminants on other non-algae protists as a trigger for diseases, such as Eelgrass Wasting Disease. My lab-mate, Lyle, who is also an awesomely passionate scientist, is culturing and studying chytrid parasites on phytoplankton. I thought, “Fantastic! A possible chance to study the effects of contaminants on a Labyrinthulomycete! Both chytrids and thraustochytrids are small circular epibionts that have “chytrids” in their name so they must be related… right?”. WRONG.

After a furious onslaught of text messages with [a very patient] Lyle arguing the difference between these two seemingly similar groups of organisms, I finally realized that chytrids are fungi, while thraustochytrids are protists. Now you may be thinking, “Protists and fungi… wait… aren’t those on opposite ends of the tree of life? Why are they both using the word “chytrid” in their names!?”. That’s a question that only taxonomists can answer, but one explanation is that thraustochytrids and labyrinthulids were variously placed under the fungi and protozoa groups before being consolidated into the Labyrinthulomycota protist group. Labyrinthulids look very similar to protozoa and thraustochytrids look very similar to fungi (e.g. chytrids). Similar morphology in combination with a seriously lacking fossil record makes it easy to see how taxonomists could have originally mistaken thraustochytrids for chytrids. It sure fooled me!

(above) Chytrids (left) vs. thraustochytrids (right)
(below) Protozoa (left) vs. labyrinthulids (right)
They look totally different… right?

Now that I understand that Lyle is NOT studying Labyrinthulomycetes, can I still explore the toxicology of protists in my lab? Actually… yes! Even though chytrids are fungi and thraustochytrids are protists, they employ similar life strategies (epibionts) and can be found simultaneously in the environment. For instance, chytrids and thraustochytrids colonize mangrove ecosystems by breaking down pollen spores and fallen leaves (Phuphumirat et al 2016). If they can be found co-occurring in the environment, and if they are hard to tell apart via microscopy, does that mean that Lyle might be unknowingly growing thraustochytrids as well as chytrids in his cultures? This is definitely a possibility, since he often spikes his cultures with actual material from the Columbia River Estuary.

If we have a successful thraustochytrid culture in my lab, I can perform similar toxicology tests as with my phytoplankton. Effects of contaminants on thraustochytrids will give us insight into possible effects of contaminants on other Labyrinthulomycetes, such as Labyrinthulids, which could have ramifications for outbreaks of Eelgrass Wasting Disease. Of course, labyrinthulids are endobionts so their exposure to contaminants would be different. Nevertheless, disease ecology is a wonderful excuse to expand my research interests and enter through the gateway of non-algae protists. The world of Labyrinthulomycete toxicology awaits!

On a closing note, non-algae protists are particularly neglected in the world of microbial research. I can’t help but think that part of the reason scientists bypass these organisms is due to confusing taxonomy and terminology. But don’t let that deter you – all it takes is a few text messages to your scientist friends to start understanding protists in relation to other plants, animals, and fungi. In the meantime, oh, the possibilities that this negligence affords! This could be the beginning of a beautiful project for those of us who know…



Raghukumar S. (2002). Ecology of marine protists, the Labyrinthulomycetes (Thraustochytrids and Labyrinthulids). European Journal of Protistology 38: 127-145.

Phuphumirat W., Ferguson D. K., Gleason F. H. (2016). The colonization of palynomorphs by chytrids and thraustochytrids during pre–depositional taphonomic processes in tropical mangrove ecosystems. Fungal Ecol. 23: 11–19. 10.1016/j.funeco.2016.05.006

Science and Art: A Natural Connection

Blog post #3

Science and Art: A Natural Connection

In lieu of a strictly science post, I wanted to talk about a passion of mine that is as important to science as it is to my person. It is something I fall back on during challenging moments in grad school. It is something I utilize when I am at my most confused, most stressed, and most happy. It is something I use to help myself, as well as other scientists and my fellow person. It is a critical facet to every field of science that is often overlooked in books, museums, posters, and classrooms. I am talking about my favorite scientific tool: visual ART.

When I define art as a “scientific tool”, I am not referring to a lab instrument like a scale or pipette. Nor am I referring to visual imagery for data analysis, such as graphs (although these do indeed communicate science to an audience!). Rather, I am referring to the role of visual art as a universal translator for the often complex nature of science.

The old adage “one picture is worth a thousand words” is extremely apt in this case. The ultimate goal of science is to better understand the world around us and communicate this understanding, but science is often perceived as “difficult” due to its multifaceted nature. Science can break down the simplest parts of life into insanely complicated individual components and overwhelm the reader with numbers and information. This complexity has built a stigma around the sciences that the public often references (we are all guilty of assuming the “scientist = smart” stereotype). The “other worldy” aura surrounding science, which is often perpetuated by unaware or high-flown scientists, has prevented many capable individuals from learning science for themselves. This can ultimately lead to abuse of knowledge or misinformation. Only by dispelling the stigma we have built around the sciences can we unite humans under a common objective knowledge that will improve the state of our lives and our planet.

Politics and personal opinion are the usual suspects to blame for scientific communication breakdown, but I argue that over-complexity is just as problematic. Think about it: how can you learn and apply new knowledge in, for instance, fisheries stock assessment if you don’t know anything about basic statistics or basic fishery principles? The experienced statistician may fully understand the definition of a regression, but he may not know anything about fish ecology. Likewise, the experienced fisherman with extensive fish knowledge may not know anything about the statistics underlying the fish population. What’s more, a person who is neither a statistician nor a fisherman may not trust, learn, or even care about new knowledge in such a field (and rightfully so, if they are not properly informed).The problem boils down to one question: How can you communicate a complicated topic to a wide audience?

Herein lies the rub. If I want to apply this conundrum to my current research, I face the challenge of communicating chemical concepts that may be very familiar to chemists, such as microscopic compounds in the environment and mass spectrometry techniques, but wildly foreign to everyone else. Posing the above question to myself: how can I communicate the complicated topic of chemical environmental contaminants to a wide audience?

Now, I am speaking from experience here. When I started this chemistry-based project, I was a marine biologist, pure and simple. My background was the macroscopic – small invertebrates, large fish, and the ecology of lake and ocean systems that supported these organisms. When I embarked on a project that characterized a chemical compound at least 5000x as small as the smallest creature I had studied, I found myself faced with a wall of seemingly insurmountable chemical knowledge. I had to spend months just reading about chromatography and mass spectrometry to scratch the surface of a topic that I could have learned much faster if given a straightforward learning aid.

This is where visual art fits into science. Visual art is a wonderful way of bringing science to a large audience since it presents intimidating information in a comfortable, simplified, and easy-to-digest format. Pictures have a way of simplifying complex topics into a cohesive image that our brains can assimilate. Of course, the image cannot convey all the details, but it provides a comfortable foundation for learning and a fantastic way of getting the “take home” message of convoluted data. Anyone can become intrigued by an interesting image since it captures the eye and engages the brain. In my experience, children are also much more likely to pay attention if given an exciting visual aid.

The principle of learning science through visual stimulation goes both ways for the artist and the viewer. Along with many students, I learn better if I draw an image of something I am learning. I have drawn illustrations for other scientists’ research projects that I know very little about, and ended up consuming a plethora of information about a niche field that I would not have learned otherwise. The act of moving my hands and engaging my brain to make a visual representation of the topic I am learning reaffirms what I know and enlightens me on what I do not know.

Personally, graphite and ink drawings are my medium of choice for learning and communicating complicated scientific topics. I have used my art to show specific biological structure, biochemical pathways, or biomechanical dimensions, and to convey general concepts in single images (e.g. neuroscience engineering, chemicals in the environment, etc.). I have even used art as a social tool in the lab to generate a sense of community between individuals (what can I say? People love to talk about a new picture!). Art is my go-to tool for working and learning effectively. Think of the potential for art to bring awareness to important complicated topics that would otherwise be misunderstood or brushed aside in the wake of confusion! Art has the ability to connect all of us as humans under a common framework of understanding.


So, next time you are at an art museum, or even just staring at the pictures on the walls of your favorite coffee shop, keep in mind that the same underlying skill that was used to paint, draw, sculpt, or craft aesthetic works is also the key to understanding art’s seemingly antithetic friend, science.

Un-mixing Mixtures: How DO I Separate That??

Hello Everybody,

It’s been a while since my first blog post, so it’s about time that I follow through with that second entry. As you guys may or may not recall, I am looking at the anti-diabetic pharmaceutical drug, metformin, as a contaminant of emerging concern (CEC) in the lower Columbia River. I know I promised to talk more about metformin as a drug, but I thought I would save this topic for next time. Instead, I am going to give a brief overview of my research methods that I have been busy developing for the past nine months.

In my last entry, I discussed the high incidence of Type II diabetes around the world and the discovery of metformin (the most commonly prescribed drug for Type II diabetes) as one of the most abundant pharmaceuticals being introduced into the environment. Metformin is not metabolized by the human body and excreted relatively unchanged into wastewater. Wastewater treatment does not necessarily target pharmaceuticals so much of the drug ends up in the environment.

My primary goal is to characterize metformin in the lower Columbia River in this environmental state. This means taking water samples and somehow measuring how much metformin is in each sample. So how do I do this? This is the question that I have been wrestling with since I started graduate school back in April. The short answer: Liquid Chromatography with Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS/MS).

PLEASE DON’T RUN AWAY!! Those words scared me as much as you (unless, of course, you happen to be a chemist who loves chromatography). The LC-MS/MS machine scared me even more than that, until I understood that it is just an over-glorified “sorting machine”. I promise I’ll make this as simple as possible, for both you and me — it’s certainly what I’ve been trying to do since I first started my research. The pictures below sum up the bulk of my research and methods right now.


In fact, I’ve been participating in the OMSI Science Communication Fellowship to figure out how to simplify these convoluted methods. So far, I have completed three Saturday “Meet-A-Scientist” events where I try to communicate complicated scientific topics to a broad public audience (from kids to adults) by using a visual demo. I built a home-made “sorting machine” by reducing the LC-MS/MS machine to its simplest components. I would argue that I’ve learned more than my audience during this process – not only is my demo similar to the real machine in conceptual function, but it also requires an eerily similar degree of mechanical frustration.


lcms-model            omsi

(top) The Beast. Real LC-MS/MS requires a very scare machine. (bottom left) The Beast: Part Deux. Pretend LC-MS/MS also requires a very scary machine that breaks a lot. (right) The silver lining: kids love my home-made sorting machine!


What exactly is LC-MS/MS? Well, let’s start at the beginning: what is liquid chromatography (LC)? Liquid chromatography is just a way to separate something (i.e. a compound of interest) from a mixture. In my case, I use high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) which is just faster liquid chromatography under high pressure.

In its most basic form, HPLC requires a column (“stationary phase”) and a solvent (“mobile phase”) — in other words, two things that will interact with your compound in different ways. The stationary phase column is a tube packed with tiny porous spheres. The mobile phase is a liquid that is pumped through the column with your mixture. The idea is that your mixture is pushed down the column with the mobile phase and each compound in the mixture will stick to the column for a different amount of time. The compounds with greater affinity for the stationary phase will be pushed off later than the compounds that have greater affinity for the mobile phase. The goal is to get your compound off the column without other compounds coming off at the same time. The column can be highly customizable to better separate your unique compound, such as sphere size, column length, and modifications to sphere surfaces. The mobile phase can also be customizable depending on your needs, although it is typically water, organic solvent (e.g. methanol), or a mixture of the two. As you can imagine, half the battle with HPLC is selecting the appropriate column and mobile phase — the selection process can take many months of expensive and time-consuming trial and error (this was the first three months of my project!).

HPLC is the first part of the LC-MS/MS machine. The machine injects the mixture (river water, in my case) onto the column and rinses the column with the mobile phase. My mobile phase is a solution of water and methanol that increases with time. As the methanol concentration increases, the compounds in the river water are “pulled” off the column at different times depending on their unique chemical characteristics.


(left) The HPLC column (stationary phase) is a tube packed with tiny porous spheres. (right) The idea behind liquid chromatography. The mixture plus a mobile phase solvent is injected onto the column and the compounds in the mixture separate at different times as they interact with the column and mobile phase differently.


The stuff coming off the column is recorded by the computer and represented in the form of a chromatogram, which shows the amount of material coming off the column over time. However, the question remains: how do we know which compound is coming off the column at which time? This is where the second part of the LC-MS/MS machine comes in.

The liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) machine consists of two parts: an HPLC machine to perform liquid chromatography (LC) and a mass spectrometer to perform tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS). The computer represents the data with a chromatogram which shows the amount of material coming off the column with time.


Mass spectrometry (MS) is essentially just an extra step of “sorting” based on the specific mass of compounds. After your mixture has been separated by liquid chromatography, a mass spectrometer identifies the compounds coming off the column based on their unique masses.

The mass spectrometer first excites (i.e. ionizes) the separated compounds coming off the HPLC so that the machine can use charges to sort and pull the compounds through the machine to the detector. Specifically, the ionized compounds follow a path through an acceleration chamber and into a deflection field produced by two magnets. These magnets will deflect compounds differently based on their mass. Think of it like being shot through a cannon: the light cannonball will go farther than the heavy cannonball; Calista Flockhart will go farther than Mama Cass. The machine can be programmed to only let one specific mass, several masses, or all masses through to the detector. The detector will then record how much of each ionized compound is coming out of the mass spectrometer.


A basic mass spectrometer. The compounds coming out of the HPLC column are ionized and pulled through the system. A magnet deflects compounds differently depending on their mass. In this picture, the mass spectrometer has been programmed to detect all ionized compounds, but it can also be programmed to detect only one or a few masses. (picture courtesy of Khan Academy)


In my case, I use tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS), which goes a step further and identifies the structure of the compound. A tandem mass spectrometer is just like a “basic” mass spectrometer, only the ionized compounds are broken into pieces in a modified acceleration chamber. Instead of sorting whole compounds based on mass, the machine sorts the fragments of compounds based on mass. You can then verify the structure of your compound of interest by looking at what fragments are present or not present. This is especially helpful if your compound of interest is in a mixture with other compounds that have similar masses, which is the case for metformin in river water.


Caption: A tandem mass spectrometer (MS/MS). The compounds coming out of the HPLC column are ionized and pulled through the system, just like in the basic mass spectrometer. However, MS/MS breaks up the compound(s) coming off the HPLC column into fragments. These fragments are then sorted by mass, rather than the whole compound. MS/MS can help verify the identity of a compound in a mixture of compounds that might have similar mass (as is the case for my river water samples).


THAT’S IT! LC-MS/MS is so simple, right?! Needless to say, the method development for LC-MS/MS is an extensive process. Nine months later, and I am just starting to realize this.

I am currently working with the OHSU Core Lab to fine-tune their LC-MS/MS machine for separation of metformin (and its primary breakdown product, guanylurea) from river water. I have a ton of Columbia River water samples from this fall that I am eager to run, so hopefully I will be able to start collecting data soon! In the meantime, I will try my best to separate any LC-MS/MS frustration from my mixture of scientific curiosity that brought me to this amazing graduate program!

Wish me luck!

Healthcare meets the Environment

Hi There!

Welcome to the convergence between medicine and the environment!  I am a new Oregon Sea Grant scholar (actually, I started in late March, but who’s counting?) that was given the wonderfully unique opportunity to attend the Institute of Environmental Health at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, OR, under the sage direction of Dr. Tawnya Peterson and Dr. Joseph Needoba.  What’s that?  Marine scientists at a school of medicine?  Life is certainly full of the unexpected!


The Columbia River view from Munra Point, OR.


OHSU campus and tram from the South Waterfront District in Portland, OR (photo courtesy of OHSU Transportation & Parking website http://www.ohsu.edu/xd/about/services/transportation-and-parking/tram/)

The principle behind the OHSU Institute of Environmental Health actually reflects that of my research.  OHSU believes preventive medicine starts with a healthy environment.  The concept is simple: when your environment is healthier, people are healthier.  For example, think of the impact of river water quality on drinking water, and the impact of contaminants on fish and the people who consume them.  My research is based on the reverse principle: our environment becomes unhealthy with unhealthy people living in it.  Specifically, I am trying to characterize the distribution, breakdown, and phytoplankton effects of the Type II diabetes medication, metformin (and its breakdown products) in the lower Columbia River, within a public health outreach focus.

Type II diabetes is on the rise in the modern world.  In fact, by 2030, it is expected that over 350 million people worldwide will be diagnosed with Type II diabetes (http://www.whocc.no/atcddd/)!  The most commonly prescribed drug for Type II diabetes (by mass) is metformin (http://www.whocc.no/atcddd/).  Metformin (also known as Glucophage) is a dimethyl-biguanide with the unique ability to lower glucose levels in the blood without breaking down in the body (more on this in my next post!).  The drug simply does its job and passes straight through the human system.  Metformin is so amazing that the molecular underpinnings of its pharmaceutical action remain an area of active investigation.  There are even potential links between metformin and improved physiology, including anti-cancer and anti-aging properties!

An amazing little drug!

An amazing little drug!

With such a high rate of metformin usage in combination with its largely unaltered excretion into wastewater, metformin has become one of the most abundant pharmaceuticals being introduced into the environment and has been labeled as a Contaminant of Emerging Concern (CEC).  Very little is known about the effects of metformin or its breakdown products in the environment, but endocrine disrupting effects have been observed in fathead minnows (Niemuth and Klaper 2015, Crago et al 2016), in addition to possible effects on Chinook salmon survival (Meador 2014).  In fact, a 2016 study in the Puget Sound listed metformin as the highest CEC in wastewater treatment plant effluent water (Meador et al 2016).  The total combined CEC output of only TWO tested wastewater treatment plants (out of 106!) was on the order of kilograms per day (Meador et al 2016).  To give you a frame of reference, picture the total amount of synthetic drugs, chemicals, and other chemicals of concern approaching natural levels of nitrogen input!  Being one of the highest CEC’s in wastewater treatment plant effluent, metformin is a large part of this picture.

A similar situation may be true down here in Oregon, which is why I am looking at metformin in the Columbia River.  The Columbia River is the second largest river (by flow) in the United States and the largest source of freshwater to the northeast Pacific Ocean.  With such a high flow rate along areas of dense population, metformin is a detectable CEC in the Columbia River (unpublished data).   I hope to characterize the distribution of metformin and its breakdown product, guanylurea, along the lower river.  I have already started taking samples with the help of Columbia River Keeper (CRK) and our wonderful lab assistant, and I hope to start analyzing metformin and guanylurea concentrations soon.

Columbia River Basin Map

Map compiled and designed by Kirstyn Alex.

This project is particularly motivating due to the potential for a positive change in both humans and our environment – two passions which I find impossible to separate.  In a clinical trial, the National Institutes of Health “found a lifestyle intervention (modest weight loss of 5 to 7 percent of body weight and 30 minutes of exercise 5 times weekly) reduced the risk of getting Type II diabetes by 58 percent in a diverse population of over 3000 adults at high risk for diabetes” (https://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/viewfactsheet.aspx?csid=121).  Obviously, Type II diabetes is often largely preventable with relatively simple changes in lifestyle.  Or, in words more pertinent to my study, metformin input and associated toxicological impacts on the Columbia River watershed is largely preventable with relatively simple changes in human lifestyle.


Sampling kits for Columbia River Keeper.


Successful first round of cleaning sample vials.

How great is it that I can encourage human health while encouraging environmental health?!  I love my job.

Stay tuned for my next entry: Metformin, the Miracle Contaminant…


Works Cited

Crago J, Bui C, Grewal S, Schlenk D. 2016. Age-dependent effects in fathead minnows from the anti-diabetic drug metformin. General and Comparative Endocrinology 232: 185-190. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2015.12.030

Meador JP. 2014. Do chemically contaminated river estuaries in Puget Sound (Washington, USA) affect the survival rate of hatchery-reared Chinook salmon? Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 71(1): 162-180. doi:10.1139/cjfas-2013-0130

Meador JP, Yeh A, Young G, Gallagher EP. 2016. Contaminants of emerging concern in a large temperate estuary. Environmental Pollution 213: 254-267. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2016.01.088

National Institutes of Health (NIH). 2010. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: NIH; [updated October 2010; accessed May 2016]. https://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/viewfactsheet.aspx?csid=121

Niemuth NJ, Klaper RD. 2015. Emerging wastewater contaminant metformin causes intersex and reduced fecundity in fish. Chemosphere 135:38-45. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2015.03.060