Immunomodulation Science Team

Science Center Objects

Exposure of wildlife, fish, and humans to environmental contaminants is known to cause changes in immune function, which can affect fitness, reproduction and disease resistance. This process, known as immunomodulation, is a major research topic by public health, veterinary, and other medical professionals outside the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). However it is outside the mission of those professionals to answer questions about the possible link between contaminants in the environment and immunomodulation in fish and wildlife. With numerous chemicals being released into the environment every day, improved understandings of the interactions between chemical contaminants, pathogens, and infectious diseases is increasing in importance. In collaboration with multiple Federal, State and local government agencies, universities and international governments, scientists in the Immunomodulation Science Team of the USGS' Environmental Health Mission Area design and conduct field-based assessments and controlled exposures of birds, fish, and other wildlife to gain insights into immune responses that may affect critical terrestrial and aquatic populations.

Lip tumor diagnosed as a papilloma on a white sucker

A lip tumor diagnosed as a papilloma on a white sucker (Catostomus commersonii) collected from the Milwaukee River.

(Credit: Vicki S. Blazer, US Geological Survey. Public domain.)

The project is addressing key questions related to the role of contaminants in modulating susceptibility to pathogens, vulnerability to disease, and infectious disease outbreaks in wildlife. Eventually, the results of these studies will identify and prioritize the most important risk factors to fish and wildlife health and could be used by other researchers to understand relevance for public health.

Current Science Questions and Activities

  • What is the potential for immunomodulation from combined exposure to endocrine disrupting compounds and microbial pathogens in black bass?
  • Does exposure to elevated levels of contemporary or newly emerging contaminants induce immunotoxic and other effects in birds that potentially make them more susceptible to disease compared to those birds that have lower or no exposure?
  • Does exposure to commonly occurring chemicals cause immunomodulation in amphibians and increase disease prevalence?
  • What is the role of environmental factors in shaping the amphibian cutaneous microbiome and susceptibility to pathogens?
  • Does exposure to pesticides, hormones, toxins or phytoestrogens modulate the immune response of fish to infectious agents? How do chemical contaminants influence disease resistance?
  • Can a single exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals during early embryonic development lead to altered immune response potential of fish in subsequent generations?
  • What are the pathways and timing of mercury induced immunomodulation in fish?
  • The presence of liver tumors in the white sucker is currently used as a biomarker of contaminant exposure that is used to define Areas of Concern within the Great Lakes region. Are these viruses risk factors associated with the genesis of liver or skin tumors?