Jennifer Martinez Panlilio


Research Summary

My research focuses on determining whether low-level exposure to harmful algal bloom (HAB) toxins during development can have later life consequences for learning and memory. Ingesting seafood with high doses of these neurotoxins can lead to illnesses that include Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning and Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning. To prevent this, HABs toxins are monitored and seafood is not harvested when concentrations of toxins reach certain levels in the water.  However, seafood is still harvested when there are detectable levels of toxins that are below regulatory limits, and humans are regularly exposed to these low doses. Until now, there have been no studies that assess long term health effects from developmental exposure to low doses of toxins, even if there is evidence for other toxins that developmental exposure to asymptomatic doses can have vast consequences for health and disease later in life.  The first part of my research seeks to address the question of whether there are long-term effects from exposure below regulatory limits. Doing so is critical to assessing human health risks from lower doses and possibly developing better, stricter regulations if necessary.

In addition to characterizing these effects, we also hope to answer how, exactly, such low-dose exposure during development causes these delayed effects. Previous research has shown that epigenetics, which are changes in gene expression that are independent of alterations to the actual DNA sequence, can play a role in mediating these effects. I am planning to determine whether two epigenetic mechanisms, DNA methylation and microRNA expression, are altered by low dose exposure to HAB toxins, and whether these alterations cause long-lasting changes in gene expression, ultimately leading to later life consequences in learning and memory. In particular, I will be investigating whether oxidative stress, which is the disruption of redox signaling and control, is the common mechanism by which various HAB toxins with unique chemical structures and differing mechanisms for toxicity alter these epigenetic mechanisms.

I will be conducting this research with Dr. Mark Hahn and Dr. Neel Aluru within the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health. We will first characterize the possible neurological effects in adults from developmental exposure to two HAB toxins – domoic acid (DA) and saxitoxin (STX). Then, we will characterize the epigenetic changes that may occur from these low dose exposures during development. By identifying the specific molecular mechanisms that mediate these long-term effects, we hope to be able to assess and mitigate risks from low-dose exposures during development. Ultimately, we are aiming for a better understanding of the effects of HAB toxins on human health, hopefully leading to improved regulations on seafood harvest and safer public consumption.*Jennifer is funded through DOEI's Ocean Ridge Initiative