Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

In whale blubber, a tiny, telltale chemical clue
email this pageEmail to a Friend
spacer Enlarge image
Chemist Emma Teuten prepares blubber sample for analysis. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, WHOI Graphics Services)

Emma Teuten may be a vegetarian, but that didn’t deter her from seeking intriguing chemical clues in whale blubber to an important marine pollution issue. Teuten and fellow chemist Chris Reddy discovered that two suspected man-made pollutants found in marine mammals actually came from natural sources.

Methoxylated polybrominated diphenyl ethers (MeOBDEs), a component of flame retardants, have been found accumulating in animal tissues around the world. Some researchers suspect that these compounds may affect animal and human health, and some compounds have been banned. Bromine compounds have been found in fish and humans near industrialized areas, but they have also shown up in the flesh of sea sponges, dolphins, and other creatures far removed from human activity.

Teuten, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry (MCG), dulled a dozen knives and burned up two blenders in order to isolate just 1 gram of brominated compound from 20 kilograms (22 pounds) of blubber from a beached whale that had died. “There was no road map for this,” said Teuten. “This just hasn’t been done before.”

Teuten and Reddy examined her sample for carbon-14, a natural radioactive isotope of carbon that is incorporated into all living things, but is not found in industrial petrochemicals. They found that BDEs in the whale tissue contained carbon-14, meaning the chemicals were derived from a natural (though still unidentified) source. Gordon Gribble, an environmental chemist at Dartmouth College, called the technique “very exciting...a great tool for distinguishing natural compounds from man-made ones.”

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Copyright ©2005 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, All Rights Reserved.

Mail: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 266 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA.
E-Contact: info@whoi.edu; press relations: media@whoi.edu, tel. (508) 457-2000

Home | Site Map | Contact