New MBL Course Targets Hormone-Disrupting Pollutants

Students in the 2022 ECHO Course perform lab work. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh

They exist everywhere. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are in the packaging of the food we eat, the cosmetics we put on our faces, in pesticides and water bottles, in our clothing and even in some children’s toys. Both natural and manufactured, these chemicals are linked to issues with development, reproduction, metabolism, and behavior in animals—including humans.

A new MBL course aims to figure out exactly how these chemicals are impacting human biology, and what can be done about them.

The course, Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Hazards and Opportunities (ECHO), was developed by two scientists with longtime MBL ties: Joan Ruderman of Princeton University and Pat Hunt of Washington State University. Hunt and Ruderman deliberately designed ECHO to be multidisciplinary: It covers topics from complex chemistry to public health. The course made its debut this past spring.

The inaugural cohort of the MBL ECHO Course. Credit: Michelle Kossacka
The inaugural cohort of the MBL ECHO Course. Credit: Michelle Kossack

“A lot of people back off when they hear the term endocrine disruptor, so I like the term ‘hormone-disrupting pollutants,’” says Ruderman, who served as MBL director from 2012 to 2014 and Embryology course director in 1978 and 1979. These types of pollutants are “tricksters,” says Ruderman, in that they can mimic the natural processes and messages of hormones and interfere with the body’s normal hormonal responses.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals” because they never break down, are commonly used in the creation of nonstick and fire-retardant materials. They’re also notorious hormone disruptors. Chemicals from BPA (bisphenol A) to DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) to many fungicides also fall under the umbrella. Those act as environmental obesogens—when a person is exposed to them early in life, their risk of obesity increases with age.

“We’re worried about things that become epidemic in human populations. Diabetes. Obesity. Infertility,” says Hunt. “The question is, ‘What can we do?’ It’s a fascinating biological question and understanding it offers a way for us to reverse some of these effects.” Hunt was director of the MBL’s Frontiers in Reproduction (FIR) course from 2002-2004.

Faculty from other courses check out the ECHO lab. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
Faculty from other courses check out the inaugural ECHO course. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
Hunt looks over the shoulder of an ECHO student working in the lab. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh
Hunt looks over the shoulder of an ECHO student working in the lab. Credit: Emily Greenhalgh

Why Now? Why the MBL?

Research on endocrine disruption ranges widely. Hunt’s and Ruderman’s colleagues range from chemists to reproductive biologists to neuroscientists to specialists on mammary glands.

“It’s such a complex field and there are so many questions. We all lean on each other. A lot of the faculty in the ECHO course entered into endocrine disruptor research [by accident],” Hunt says, adding that they wanted to give the next generation of scientists entering the field a “jump start.”

The best way to do that? “Get a lot of people who don’t normally talk to each other together to talk to each other,” says Hunt.

Both Hunt and Ruderman agreed that the MBL was the place to make that happen.

“We know that the MBL is the one place on Earth where graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, young faculty, and even tenured faculty can come for two, three, even six weeks and learn from faculty members from all over the world,” says Ruderman.

“This field demands a broader understanding,” says Hunt. The ECHO group is forging relationships with scientists in other MBL courses, as well, including Frontiers in Reproduction and Embryology.

When asked, the students in the first ECHO cohort agreed. They were excited to learn, but also excited to forge a community of other researchers.

Learn More About the ECHO Course