Wooster Scientists Receive Grant to Study Microbial Degradation of Antidepressants

Melissa Schultz, Mark Snider, and Stephanie Strand awarded $100,000 grant from Research Corporation

July 26, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Staggering quantities of antidepressants are contaminating the environment through wastewater treatment plants, and the impact, especially on fish and amphibians, is potentially devastating. But three scientists from The College of Wooster are working to minimize the damage and possibly eliminate the problem through a study made possible by a $100,000 Cottrell College Science Award (CCSA) from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA).

Melissa Schultz, associate professor of chemistry and environmental studies; Mark Snider, associate professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology; and Stephanie Strand, assistant professor of biology, biochemistry and molecular biology; have joined forces in an effort to understand how microorganisms might be able to degrade antidepressants during the wastewater treatment process, thereby decreasing their contamination within the environment.

The human body is not able to completely break down antidepressants, so they flow unchecked into wastewater treatment plants. Couple that with the all-too-common practice of flushing unused or unwanted antidepressants down the toilet, and the contamination escalates exponentially. But the three Wooster scientists bring a unique skill set to the problem. Schultz is an analytical chemist who has been measuring levels of antidepressants in aquatic environments, including in fish, for seven years. Snider, a biochemist, and Strand, a microbiologist, have been looking at how naturally occurring microorganisms, specifically bacteria in wastewater, can break down and degrade antidepressants in the environment, thereby providing a potential solution.

"All wastewater treatment discharge contains antidepressants,” said Schultz. “These drugs are also accumulating in aquatic organisms that live in these waste-receiving waters. Laboratory exposure experiments conducted at environmentally relevant concentrations have shown that exposure to antidepressants can have adverse behavioral effects on these aquatic organisms."

Snider explained how the trio is trying to understand more about how microorganisms might use pharmaceutical contaminants as a potential source of carbon and energy. “We know the bacteria are doing it,” said Snider, “because experiments conducted in microcosms (small model environments in the lab where antidepressants are monitored and then measured with a mass spectrometer) show degradation of the target antidepressants.”

Stand said that in the long term, “the identification of these microbes and their enzymes could help us to augment wastewater treatment, and perhaps decrease environmental contamination.”

The three Wooster scientists will conduct research for the next two years, and plan to publish their findings at the conclusion of the study.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement is a leading advocate for the sciences and a major source of funding for scientific innovation and research in America’s colleges and universities. Cottrell College Science Awards support significant research that contributes to the advancement of science and to the professional and scholarly development of faculty and their students. They also offer crucial recognition and funding, primarily to undergraduate institutions, which play a vital role in educating students who go on to earn a Ph.D.

“These grants provide funds and encouragement for young professors to pursue their research in a collaborative setting, while at the same time assist them in bringing their students into the lab to participate in real-world research projects,” said James M. Gentile, RCSA president and CEO. “It is a highly effective way to help young scientists just starting out, as well as to encourage the next generation of students to enter America’s scientific workforce.”