Why Cleaning our Oceans Could Also Reduce Obesity

Samera Mulatu, Georgia Southern University

The problem: Charleston Harbor is undergoing massive dredging to make way for super tankers. There are concerns that banned legacy compounds buried in the sediments, such as tributyltin (TBT), will be brought up into the harbor waters as a result of the dredging. A related concern is that oil spills will become more common and involve the release of cleanup compounds into the water column, including Span 80 and dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS). These three compounds and others are known to act as endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), which disrupt the Retinoid X Receptor (RXR) pathway. In mollusks, RXR disruption induces imposex development (when female mollusks develop male sex traits). One goal of my project is to measure the rates of imposex in the Eastern mud snail (Tritia obsoleta) within different sites in Charleston Harbor and to see if these rates increase over time with dredging.

The same chemicals that cause imposex are used in medications, processed foods (e.g. homogenized milk), textiles, paints, and cosmetics.  Because the identification and study of many EDCs is fairly new and upcoming, their effects on the human body are still not fully understood. Those EDCs found to promote weight gain are called “obesogens.” Early exposure to obesogens can detrimentally affect a child’s health into adulthood! These obesogens can persistently alter hormonal signaling pathways in children, which can lead to permanent metabolic damage.

Obesity in the United States is at an all-time high. Approximately half of the population is predicted to be obese by 2020.  This is a serious health problem because obesity can drastically increase the likelihood of developing cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Many people associate obesity with lack of exercise. However, it should be noted that obesogens can reduce energy, increase appetite and change behaviors associated with weight gain.


The author (right) collecting mud snails (Tritia obsoleta).  Photo: Dr. Spyropoulos.

I would like to give a big thank to Dr. Demetri Spyropoulos for guiding me in my research. Also to the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI- 1757899, for providing me with the funds to complete this project.

Related research

Hotchkiss, A.K, A.G.Leblanc, R.M. Sternberg. 2002. Synchronized expression of Retinoid X Receptor mRNA with Reproductive Tract Recrudescence in an Imposex- Susceptible Mollusc. Environ. Sci Technol. 42: 1345- 1351.

Ravitchandirane, V. S, M.Thangaraj. 2013. Phylogenetic Status of Babylonia Zeylanica (Family Babyloniidae) Based on 18S rRNA GENE FRAGMENT.Annals of West University of Timisoara, ser. Biology. 1(2): 135- 140.

Barron- Vivanco, B.S, D. Dominguez- Ojeda, I.M. Medina- Diaz, A.E. Rojas- Garcia, M.L. Robledo- Marenco. 2014. Exposure to tributyltin chloride induces penis and vas deferns development and increases RXR expression in females of the purple snail (Plicopurpura pansa). Invertebrate Survival Journal. 11: 204-2012.

Horiguchi, T., M. Morita, T. Nishikawa, Y. Ohta, H. Shiraishi. 2007. Retinoid X Receptor gene expression and protein content in tissues of the rock shell Thais clavigera. Aquatic Toxicology. 84: 379-388.

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