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Hutton chemical analysis contributes to study of pollutants in sheep livers

Environmental chemical analysis at the James Hutton Institute
"The capability of our team to determine traces of environmental pollutants, including emerging contaminants, in complex matrices enables us to assess the potential risk of these pollutants to wildlife and human health"

Researchers based at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen have contributed to a study which has found that pollutants cause ‘worrying’ changes in sheep livers.

After an exhaustive series of environmental chemical analyses carried out by Dr Zulin Zhang and his team in the Institute’s Environmental and Biochemical Sciences group, plus researchers of the universities of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA, Jouy-en-Josas), the results raise questions about the potential effect of environmental chemicals on human health and the environment.

The liver, as part of the body’s sophisticated natural defences, can break down many chemicals. However, the environment contains large numbers of chemicals which have made their way into the food chain. These include many man-made chemicals, such as plasticisers, pharmaceuticals and persistent organic pollutants that do not break down easily.

This is particularly problematic because the liver not only protects the body against toxins but also fine-tunes how our bodies work, for example, playing a role in making or burning fat. 

The study, published in Environment International, looked at the livers of sheep that were raised in an environment with sewage sludge fertiliser containing potentially harmful chemicals at levels commonly found in our everyday environment.

The animals were exposed to chemicals used according to agricultural guidelines, throughout their lives, starting even before conception and continuing right into early adulthood.

The study found that the livers of the sheep exposed to the fertiliser showed abnormalities. Furthermore, the livers of ewes and rams were influenced by exposure in a different manner. For instance, the exposed ewes had altered amounts of fats in their livers whereas indications for cancer predisposition was noted in the livers of the exposed rams.

The researchers suggest the results are worrying because if they were translated to humans, they would suggest that chronic exposition to environment polluted with chemicals will eventually harm the liver, potentiality contributing to liver-related diseases.

Professor Paul Fowler of the University of Aberdeen said: “A well-functioning liver is important for health and development. Therefore, risks to the liver such as chemicals exposures need to be better understood.

“Liver-related diseases are highly prevalent in the population, with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease affecting over 20% of people. Liver cancer is among the most common causes of cancer death. Unfortunately, the incidences of liver-related diseases are rising and we need to understand if these kinds of chemicals are contributing to liver disease.

“We know that environmental chemicals such as phthalates and heavy metals to which we are exposed on a daily basis are damaging to the liver, but we do not know the extent of the damage. Our study examined what has gone wrong and such information is useful for helping us to undo the harm.”

Dr Panagiotis Filis, a post-doctoral scientist at the University of Aberdeen and lead author of the study, added: “Our study provides additional evidence for the damaging effects of environmental chemicals in our bodies. The fact that a number of different effects were noted in the exposed animals when they were still only young adults, is worrying.

“We hope this may include better management of environmental chemicals and monitoring of people at risk.”

Dr Zulin Zhang added: “The type of analysis we did for this study is becoming more relevant, as pollutants are found in more remote parts of our planet, including the deepest reaches of our oceans.

"The capability of our team to determine traces of environmental pollutants, including emerging contaminants, in complex matrices enables us to assess the potential risk of these pollutants to wildlife and human health.”

The research paper acknowledges the important contribution made by Hutton researchers Carol Kyle and the late Dr Stewart Rhind to the study of chemical impacts on animal health.

The work was funded by the Wellcome Trust [080388], the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme [under grant agreement no. 212885], the University of Aberdeen and the Society for Reproduction and Fertility.

Paper: Long-term exposure to chemicals in sewage sludge fertilizer alters liver lipid content in females and cancer marker expression in males, by Panagiotis Filis, Natasha Walker, Linda Robertson, Emily Eaton-Turner, Lauma Ramona, Michelle Bellingham, Maria R. Amezaga, Zulin Zhang, Beatrice Mandon-Pepin, Neil P. Evans, Richard M. Sharpe, Corinne Cotinot, William D. Rees, Peter O'Shaughnessy and Paul A. Fowler. Environment International 124 (2019) 98–108.

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Printed from /news/hutton-chemical-analysis-contributes-study-pollutants-sheep-livers on 29/11/23 05:25:40 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.