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Berkeley scientist speaks at MU about atrazine's effect on frogs

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 | 5:48 p.m. CDT; updated 4:29 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 17, 2011

COLUMBIA — When biologist Tyrone Hayes published a breakthrough paper linking the common herbicide atrazine to sexual changes in frogs, his mother didn't know if his accomplishment was a big deal.

"'I don’t want to hurt your feelings,'" Hayes said, recalling his mother's words. "'But how important was that article?'" She asked him this because she couldn't find a copy at Barnes and Noble.

The article, published in a scientific research journal, is a part of Hayes' ever-growing body of work that looks at the effects of atrazine — a widely used herbicide — on different species of frogs.

Hayes, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, presented an overview of his research and its implication for human populations to an audience Monday at MU’s Life Sciences Center. 

"My story starts with a little boy who loves frogs — and it ends that way, too," Hayes said as he opened his talk.

That love of frogs took him from the children's book "What Is a Frog?" by Gene Darby, which Hayes' mother said was his favorite growing up, to studying the effect atrazine had on the sexual habits of frogs.

Hayes' research found that the herbicide, which currently isn't allowed in the European Union, could have profound feminizing effects on male African clawed frogs. To show this, Hayes and his fellow researchers tracked the mating patterns of male frogs under laboratory conditions.

They found that many of the male frogs exposed to atrazine did not mate — or, as Hayes put it, form a "love connection" — with female frogs overnight.

Hayes' research also found that some atrazine-treated frogs had significantly lower levels of testosterone as well as both male and female sex organs.

He also found that atrazine might have a feminizing effect on the brains of frogs after an undergraduate charged with maintaining the frog tanks complained about the time it took her to "pull the frogs apart" every morning.

"What'd you mean you have to pull them apart?" Hayes asked her. "They're all males."

Hayes' research at one time was funded in part by the agricultural corporation Syngenta, which produces atrazine. Hayes quit his consulting position because his contract gave the company control over what he could publish.

Since the break-up, public disputes have arisen between Hayes and Syngenta. A website maintained by Syngenta has an entire page titled "Ethical Concerns Surrounding Opponents to Atrazine," which is devoted to discrediting Hayes.

Annette Hormann, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in biological sciences at MU, suggested Hayes as a possible speaker and hosted him while he was in town. Hormann first met Hayes at a conference in New Orleans.

"He's very down to earth," she said. "Not all researchers are like that."

Hormann's own work involves common chemical hormone disruptors as well. She related her own work to Hayes' in discussing broad societal issues surrounding industrial chemicals.

"If you did blood tests on all of us, you would have a little bit of everything in you," she said. "This is a bigger deal than global warming to me."


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Comments

Michael Williams October 13, 2011 | 10:33 a.m.

There are many, many chemicals (man-made and natural) that cause feminization. Atrazine may indeed be one of them.

But what I'd really like to see is an effort to show the effects of peeing out all that ethinyl estradiol active ingredient plus metabolites by women on birth control pills. After all, a consumed medicinal doesn't just magically disappear within your body; rather, it does its job and eventually is eliminated into your local septic system.....which can't degrade enough of it before it is discharged.

Ethinyl estradiol DOES cause feminization AND it is found in river/lake/stream waters at levels KNOWN to cause feminization.

Helluva political problem, methinks.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 13, 2011 | 10:55 a.m.

Missourian: I clicked and explored your Syngenta link to find the page discrediting Dr. Hayes. After much searching, I found it. The more direct link is:

http://www.atrazine.com/Amphibians/tyron...

When I first read your article, Benjamin, I was concerned that Syngenta would discredit Dr. Hayes on their webpage. Your own writing led me to believe Dr. Hayes was the victim of an unwarranted corporate attack and was completely innocent of any ethical wrongdoing.

Hmmm. Not so fast.

After reading those emails, Dr. Hayes doesn't seem quite so innocent at all! The e-mails are prime examples of the legal term: res ipsa loquitur.

Did you insert yourself into the news via your choice of words/tone/grammar? Did you reflect your own personal views in your article?

Did you MAKE news by influencing your readers thoughts?

I think....yes, you did.

(Report Comment)
John Schneller October 13, 2011 | 11:57 a.m.

Michael,
I was the assigning editor on the atrazine story.
Thanks so much for the direct link to information about the dispute between Syngenta and the atrazine researcher. The focus of the story was the campus visit rather than digging into the dispute itself, but I'm glad that Benjamin's report brought it to the attention of you and others.
John Schneller, enterprise editor

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 13, 2011 | 1:09 p.m.

John: The focus of the story was the campus visit rather than digging into the dispute itself...

Me: Well, the focus got out of focus, dontcha think? Why add incomplete and misleading info?

Your reporter inserted himself into the news; that should concern you. It sure concerns me, since it causes me to question where and when it happens on other stories you publish.

It goes to the heart of credibility.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 13, 2011 | 2:43 p.m.

Michael Williams wrote:

"Ethinyl estradiol DOES cause feminization AND it is found in river/lake/stream waters at levels KNOWN to cause feminization."

Did you see this review? They address a lot of that.

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es1...

As far as atrazine, the most telling study would show correlation between feminization in the wild with atrazine levels in actual tissue (as well as surrounding environment)but I know such studies are much more expensive and difficult than lab studies. A problem with lab studies is they may not reflect the nuances of environmental exposure.

For example, suppose atrazine is being potentiated by an ingredient/contaminant in the lab frog's food that is not present in the wilds?

As far as the emails, I haven't read that many of them, but I also wonder about the context for a lot of them. Just from the emails, it doesn't sound like Dr. Hayes is the most diplomatic or graceful scientist I've known, but that doesn't discredit his work.

DK

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 13, 2011 | 4:29 p.m.

Mark: In your link, see the caption for Figure 2.

It's a relatively good paper. I wish they had done a better job of addressing relative and absolute potency. Such a discussion would better support their conclusion.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 13, 2011 | 4:51 p.m.

Missourian: Thanx for the email. I'll repost, as follows:

Mark says, "Just from the emails, it doesn't sound like Dr. Hayes is the most diplomatic or graceful scientist I've known, but that doesn't discredit his work."
_________________________

You are, of course, correct in this statement. Some of the most obnoxious academics and physicians I have known were stellar in their fields.

But you and I both know that a personal ethic cannot be separate from a professional ethic. The former bleeds into the latter...every time. You should read more of the emails. Take a look at these:

http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinside...

Or this one:

http://www.atrazine.com/Amphibians/tyron...

or especially this one:

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010...

For this last one, see the content of the final line of his e-mail poem, which I posted the first time but shouldn't have.
_________________________

Does this sound like a guy who can perform unbiased, repeatable research?

I understand that last quotation may get this post eliminated (Note: It was). If so, I'll re-post without the quote. But, I think readers should really know just how unprofessional this guy can be. And that should provoke questions about the quality of his research; after all, research should be dispassionate and above any personal views on the direction results should take. Reporters should not make news, and scientists should not make facts.

It distresses me that the Missourian would write glowingly about this guy without checking him out more thoroughly.

I know many folks in SETAC (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry), of which Dr. Hayes is a member (I'm not a member since I retired). I'll check and see what they have to say.

(Report Comment)
Benjamin Unglesbee October 13, 2011 | 4:54 p.m.

Hello Michael,

I was the reporter who worked on this story. I want to thank you for adding your knowledge to the discussion about external feminizing agents (in re: ethinyl estradiol).

It definitely was not my intention to try to influence reader opinion one way or another in mentioning disputes between Hayes and Syngenta. I felt compelled to bring the subject up to provide background for our readers, and I added the link to atrazine.com to provide access to alternative research and viewpoints regarding atrazine and Hayes' work.

I'm not sure if this will fully answer your questions about field studies on atrazine and frogs, but here is one study Hayes and other researchers performed in the field:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/article/...

Ben Unglesbee, Missourian reporter

(Report Comment)
Benjamin Unglesbee October 13, 2011 | 4:57 p.m.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles...

(Let me try that link again)

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 14, 2011 | 6:03 a.m.

Michael Williams wrote:

":Mark: In your link, see the caption for Figure 2."

Oh, I did. And yes, the higher potency of EE2 is ceertainly something to take into account. However, with a lot of the other information in the later tables, the relative contributions of EE2 in OC's versus natural estrogens and feedlots can be roughly estimated. Feedlots are especially troubling because runoff from them is untreated, where estrogens are diminished by treatment, both sewage and drinking water.

"And that should provoke questions about the quality of his research; after all, research should be dispassionate and above any personal views on the direction results should take."

A concern is how enamored he seems to be of himself. Yes, he's had a prestigious career, but some of the greatest scientists, that have the most long term impact, are usually rather humble. It does make one wonder about what might happen to unreproduceable or contradictory results in the journey from bench to journal.

DK

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 14, 2011 | 9:13 a.m.

MarkF: "It does make one wonder about what might happen to unreproduceable or contradictory results in the journey from bench to journal."
_________________________

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Obviously you've been around this particular block a few times.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 17, 2011 | 10:42 p.m.

Followup:

I checked with several of my SETAC friends (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry) about Dr. Hayes.

The comments were universally not good.

Apparently, SETAC had to institute an ethics policy because of his behavior.

(Report Comment)

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