Faculty Research Award Recipients

Heiko Schoenfuss
Professor Heiko Schoenfuss, center, testifies before Minnesota’s House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources Finance Jan. 22, 2007,at the State Office Building in St. Paul. ARDC photo by Irene Voth

2007: Heiko Schoenfuss

The College of Science and Engineering named Associate Professor Heiko Schoenfuss winner of the 2007 Faculty Research Award. The COSE Applied Research Committee chose Schoenfuss in March 2007 after considering all nominations.

A member of the Biological Sciences since 2001, Schoenfuss is director of the Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory. He received his B.S. in biology from the University of Bayreuth, Germany, in 1991, an M.S. in veterinary anatomy and a Ph.D. in evolutionary anatomy concurrently in 1997 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. His postdoctoral studies took place at the University of Minnesota, His research focuses on the effects of long-term (evolutionary) and short-term (anthropogenical) disturbances on the structure of vertebrates. His two primary current research directions are the evolution and performance of climbing Hawaiian gobioid fishes and the effects of emerging contaminants on the aquatic ecosystem. 

Dean David DeGroote presented the award to Schoenfuss at the college’s annual fall seminar Oct. 10. Included in the award are a commemorative plaque, $1,000 in professional development funds and the opportunity to present current research findings at the seminar.

Schoenfuss’ lengthy research resume speaks volumes about his commitment to scientific inquiry. The June 4, 2007, issue of Newsweek magazine featured Schoenfuss as the leading investigator into the effects of emerging contaminants on fish in the Mississippi River. His work has been published in such journals as Aquatic Toxicology and the Journal of Zoology, Royal Society of London. He has also presented at conferences such as the International Conference on Pharmaceutics and Endocrine
Disrupting Chemicals in Water. Among the organizations that have provided funding for his research are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Schoenfuss was nominated for the award in May by two colleagues. Biological Sciences chair Timothy Schuh and long-time department member Gordon Schrank submitted nominations independent of each other’s efforts.

Involving student researchers

“I cannot recall an investigator at this institution who so thoroughly involves undergraduates, graduate students and other faculty members in his research programs,” wrote Schrank in his nomination narrative.

Collaboration with and support of student researchers is the first of the four award criteria, and Schuh and Schrank listed numerous research publications and presentations by students working in collaboration with Schoenfuss since 2001.

These included four publications in refereed journals as well as several award-winning oral presentations at such conferences as the Midwest Meeting of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and the Annual International Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Schoenfuss has also sponsored five graduate and 16 undergraduate presentations at the
SCSU Student Research Colloquium.

Schuh wrote that Schoenfuss has mentored at least eight graduate students over the past five years and includes both graduates and undergraduates in research retreats and travel to scientific meetings. He is also adviser to the Biology Graduate Student Organization and the Medical Professions Association. Early in 2007, the university named Schoenfuss the 2007 student organization “Adviser of the Year” for his role with the Medical Professions Association.

“His collaboration with students does not end with St. Cloud State,” Schrank said, adding that Schoenfuss works closely with students and faculty at other institutions to strengthen the teams he develops.

Dissemination of research results

Schuh and Schrank listed 16 articles authored or co-authored by Schoenfuss in peer-reviewed journals since October 2001. The citations reveal two areas of focus: the Gobiidae family of fish, which are waterfall-climbing fish native to tropical areas such as the Dominican Republic and Hawaii; and the effects of endocrine disrupting compounds on fish in the Mississippi River.

The citations also reveal the names of Schoenfuss’ frequent co-researchers, including Richard Blob, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences at Clemson University, and Matthew Julius, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences, St. Cloud State University.

Schrank said Schoenfuss has a research vision that includes using existing expertise in research design and techniques, which leads him to involve faculty who can complement his own skills.

River research

Schoenfuss’ biological and chemical survey of the upper Mississippi River is one of the most extensive analyses of the extent of endocrine disruption in any major continental watershed.

In 2006, Schoenfuss and his team of graduate and undergraduate student researchers collected almost 700 fish representing three species and sampled water and sediment from more than 40 sites in the Mississippi, from where it begins near Bemidji, Minn., to the Minnesota-Iowa border.

The Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory directed by Heiko Schoenfuss assesses the effects of biologically active compounds in flow-through exposures at concentrations in the low ppb (microgram/L) and ppt (nanogram/L) range. The foci of the interdisciplinary research conducted in this laboratory are the biological effects of compounds that affect the endocrine pathways of aquatic vertebrates.

It is in this laboratory that Schoenfuss and his team of student researchers first exposed young, male fathead minnows to certain emerging contaminants—now called “anthropogenic compounds” commonly present in wastewater effluent. Effects at high concentrations included death. At various percentages of the concentrations present at certain locations in the Mississippi River, many fish grew to maturity. However, the mature males were observed to be less able to defend their nesting sites – thus less able to successfully reproduce. Examination of the various tissues of these fish showed abnormalities generally termed “feminization.”

Following the laboratory study, Schoenfuss and team began to “field proof” their results by launching a study of water, sediment and fish at more than 40 sites in the Mississippi River. Later, they also tested several of the river’s tributaries. (See main story.)

The fishes were assessed for evidence of endocrine disruption and changes, and the water and sediment samples analyzed for common aquatic contaminants, including several suspected endocrine disrupting compounds. These “anthropogenic compounds” are chemicals and combinations of chemicals from many common industrial and household cleaning products, certain prescription medications and certain kinds of industrial waste. Commonly, these chemicals enter the river via municipal wastewater effluent.

The propensity of these compounds to disrupt the normal endocrine processes of fish was previously documented in studies conducted in the Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory, which Schoenfuss directs. (See side bar.)

“The good news is there’s still a part of Minnesota this is still relatively unaffected by these emerging contaminants,” Schoenfuss
said. The bad news is the discovery of “hot spots”— areas in which the concentration of these compounds, although measured in parts per trillion, are high enough to produce the effects noted in the laboratory studies. The male fish
samples from these areas showed evidence of feminization, including the production of egg yolk protein.

Other bad news was that specific contaminants discharged by the 3M facility in the Twin Cities are making their way upstream.

Of the fish species sampled, Schoenfuss said smallmouth bass appear to be the most sensitive to endocrine disrupting compounds compared to carp and redhorse. He said bass, therefore, may provide an excellent indicator species for further studies.

A positive finding among the fish samples is the lack of intersex, Schoenfuss said. Intersex fish have both ovarian and testicular tissue in their reproductive organs. Such fish have been found in the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., Boulder Creek in Colorado and the California coastal waters, all of which have relatively high concentrations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Testing tributaries

In 2007, Schoenfuss’ student researchers, including Nathan Jahns, a graduate student who supervised the project, sampled water, sediment and seven species of fish from three watersheds that contribute to the Mississippi: the Grindstone River watershed including effluent from Hinckley; the Redwood River watershed, including effluent from Marshall; and the south fork of the Crow River watershed, including effluent from Hutchinson.

The blood, liver and testes of 1,100 fish (seven species) were tested, and much of the resulting data has yet to be analyzed, Schoenfuss said. However, the susceptibility of the fish to endocrine disruption by the contaminants appears to vary dramatically by species. Carp and redhorse appear to be least affected, while the fathead minnow tops the list as most affected.

The study suggests that land usage patterns play a significant role in the incident rate and extent of endocrine disruption in aquatic wildlife, Schoenfuss said, explaining that regions of the watershed that have been impacted less by human disturbances appear better prepared to dampen the effects of endocrine disrupting compounds discharged into river environments. This suggests that endocrine disrupting effects may emerge in northern Minnesota as deforestation and urbanization of this region progresses.

He said that while endocrine disruption appears to be common in the urban corridor from the St. Cloud past the Twin Cities and toward the Iowa border, the relative lack of disruption from St. Cloud north to Bemidji is encouraging.

Another positive is that other studies have shown feminized fish recover relatively quickly after exposure to the pertinent compounds ends. Schoenfuss said this indicates that endocrine disruption may be halted or even reversed in Minnesota waters.

Expanding collaborations

Schoenfuss’ work has led to an endocrine disruption round table meeting between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the St. Cloud State University Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory. The roundtable developed a working definition of "endocrine disruptors" with several tiers of specificity.

Schoenfuss said the meeting produced a plan for projects on endocrine disruption, established a list of research priorities and gaps, and developed several possible communication avenues to improve efficiency and effectiveness of research efforts in the field of endocrine disruption.

"We have managed to accomplish and develop a good attitude toward legislative and water quality issues," Schoenfuss said.

He added that participants enthusiastically agreed that collaborations should be strengthened in future years and projects. He said there were even suggestions to develop an interactive map of Minnesota that would allow researchers to quickly mark proposed field sites that will be investigated further.

A general consensus was that on many occasions, combing field sampling locations of multiple studies would benefit all participants and may justify moving a field site in order to benefit from the overall greater data set.

"I think the sense of accomplishment is that we are making a difference in improving waterquality in the state of Minnesota," Schoenfuss said, and he is quick to cite the contributions of 27 undergraduate students and nine graduate students. At this time, the graduate students continue to analyze the data from the tributary study.

Schoenfuss’ river research has received $1,050,000 in external grant funding. Sources include the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the Minnesota Sea Grant College Program. Research collaborations include scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Mounds View, Minn. and Boulder, Colo., as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, Ill., and Cincinnati, Ohio.

ARDC staff writer John Yehambaram contributed to this story.

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