MUSC The Catalyst
MUSC arial view


MUSC Medical Links Charleston Links Archives Catalyst Advertisers Seminars and Events Research Studies Public Relations Research Grants Catalyst PDF File MUSC home page Community Happenings Campus News Applause

MUSC Medical Links Charleston Links Archives Catalyst Advertisers Seminars and Events Research
                          Studies Public Relations Research
                          Grants MUSC home page Community
                          Happenings Campus
                          News Applause


Researcher lands alligator, Heinz Award

By Dawn Brazell
Public Relations

They have it down to a science. They all know the jaws and the tail pose the biggest threat. After the trapped alligator is hauled onto the shore, Louis J. Guillette, Ph.D., climbs on top and, with the help of assistants, secures the powerful jaws with several rubber bands. 

Putting a towel over the alligator's eyes, the thrashing stops. It's a trick the researcher, who holds a SmartState  endowed chair in Marine Genomics, has learned calms the alligators. This is better for all involved and makes it easier for the team to quickly get blood and urine samples and tag the animal, so he can be released back into the wild.

Phil Wilkinson, formerly with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, helps Dr. Louis J. Guillette (center) and Dr. Thomas Rainwater get field samples during research at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve. To watch a video, visit

Swarms of mosquitoes cover the researchers as they collect these samples at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve, home to 31 square miles of marshland and a favorite hangout for the alligators. It's where they found the hatchling rate to be 68 percent, about 22 percent below what it should be.

One of a new breed of scientist, Guillette does much of his laboratory work in the wild. This means he has had to get creative from figuring out innovative testing kits for field research, to repurposing dog catheters, to getting urine samples from alligators.

It's one reason it was announced Sept. 13 that Guillette, a reproductive biologist, endocrinologist and professor of obstetrics and gynecology, is to receive a $100,000 Heinz Award for his pioneering research into toxic chemicals' impact on wildlife and human health. He is being recognized for his research showing how alligators can function as a sentinel species for environmental contamination. 

Guillette, who provides community talks to raise awareness about his research, uses his photography skills to augment his work in the field.

Guillette said he was 'blown away' by the news. "When you get an award on this level, you realize you have colleagues who respect your work," he said, adding that it was a humbling experience to look at former recipients. He said it's an award not just for him but for his laboratory and the colleagues with whom he collaborates, a critical key to today's successful scientists. "Modern science is not done by individuals. Modern science is done by teams."

He's thankful for the award in that it helps convince funding agencies to support the kind of science he's doing. Some agencies may see it as being a risky area.

"It validates what we continue to do – that we continue to fight to do not just the science but to take that science and have it used to make a difference in other fields and in policy. I still believe that individuals can make a difference."
Though medical science looks at nutrition and the workplace as environmental factors affecting health, other areas have been largely ignored, he said. "There are environmental contaminants that we all are exposed to chronically at relatively low concentrations, but they are chronic exposures from conception to death. What is the implication of that? Right now there are not many people in the field of medicine who really think about that."

Guillette's joint appointment in MUSC's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences Center at the Hollings Marine Lab is one way to start changing that. 

Baby gators being
                                          releasedGuillette and his team release 80 baby alligators back to their home in the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve.

Guillette said the major breakthroughs in medicine often happen at the interfaces of disciplines. "That's why today you have mathematicians and engineers working with geneticists to develop the next approach to  how do we study genetic codes – how do we study genomes. We have bioengineers working with cardiologists working with developmental biologists to discover how to repair a heart – not a bionic heart – how do we actually make the tissue to implant into the heart."

In his area, he gets to combine the fields of wildlife, genetics, reproductive biology and the environment. Studying wild populations with true genetic diversity and exposure to a region's environmental surroundings will yield very different results from a scientific model using inbred mice, he said. "Being a biologist, I'm interested in understanding the biology of the beast. The second part of the issue is the sentinel species aspect – what can that animal tell us about the health of the environment and our own health? At the level of the genes – an ovary is an ovary and a testes is a testes. What is the gene-by-environment interaction?"

Researchers Drs. Benjamin Parrott and Thomas Rainwater store samples and record field measurements from two male alligators.

Guillette has made important finds into how contaminants affect gene regulation or how they get turned on and off. In winning the Heinz Award, Teresa Heinz of the Heinz Family Foundation cited his work in the field of endocrine disruption. "His research on alligators and other marine life created an in-depth model for understanding the effects of toxins in the wild and provides information we need to safeguard people and wildlife," she said.

Guillette is a leader in the field of hormone disruption, which has emerged as a major public health threat during the past two decades. He has researched environmental estrogens for years, believing they could be responsible for dropping population levels and reproductive abnormalities in wildlife living in the waters of Florida. In the late 1980s, he and his team discovered that DDT and other chemicals in Lake Apopka in Florida were creating ovarian and genital abnormalities by manipulating their hormones. Later, he demonstrated that even low-level exposures to one or multiple environmental contaminants during critical periods of fetal development can have long-lasting health implications.

Guillette holds one of the alligators that hatched out at the Hollings Marine Laboratory.

His research raised red flags about what potential impacts chemicals also may have on human reproductive health, especially as other researchers have shown that sperm counts have dropped and testicular cancer is on the rise. Guillette's studies demonstrate that there is a direct link between environmental chemicals and male and female reproductive health.   

"I have little doubt that environmental contaminants are a significant part of the reason we are today seeing an increase in many diseases of the reproductive system in wildlife and humans," said Guillette. "The only question is, 'What are we going to do about it?' "




Friday, Sept. 30, 2011

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.