To Liege… and an introduction to the PHATS project

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Keeping an eye on the moulting grey seals resting on the Isle of May, Scotland

As June comes to a close the time of year for grey seals to moult in the UK draws to an end, so our team has stopped fieldwork and returned to the lab to focus on the analytical sides of the project. It won’t be long before the autumn breeding season rolls around though, so we have to make the most of these months while we can! With the end of the moulter work I have travelled to Belgium to work with the University of Liege on behalf of the PHATS project, and the lovely people at the Center for Analytical Research and Technology (CART) have given me a warm welcome so I’m getting along great even though my French is terrible!

I have come to CART to do a specific type of analysis that we can’t do back at home at the University of St Andrews or Abertay University. I am going to detect the amount of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that was in the seals we studied during the 2015 breeding season and the recent moulting season. This type of analysis requires a lot of specialised, complicated machinery so CART have offered their expertise and facilities to collaborate with us on the project. I have personally never run the types of extractions, purifications and detection methods that I will need to use to do this work, so I will have a lot to learn over the coming weeks.

I have not had much of a chance to explore Liege yet as I’m busy training at the lab, but so far I’ve had a peaceful time of it living on the outskirts of the city. Getting from St Andrews to Liege was relatively easy, the buses in Scotland (take the X59 and change at Ferrytoll to the 747 if you want to get from St Andrews to Edinburgh Airport) were on time and getting from Charleroi airport (sometimes called ‘Brussels South’ or something along those lines) was straight forward, the airport’s website has accurate and simple instructions for how to get to the nearby ‘Charleroi-Sud’ train station. I needed the ‘Liege-Guillemins’ station for my travel arrangements but there is another stop in the center of town called ‘Liege-Palais’ if you needed to go there. The buses here in Liege seem really good, if you have the street address of your start point and destination (try dropping points onto google maps of the areas you are in and where you want to go) this website is very useful even though its all in French, I can still navigate it anyway so I’m sure anyone can! The 48 bus is currently my best friend, it runs every ten minutes or so from the center of Liege (‘Liege Opéra’) to the University campus where CART is based, in Sart Tilman (any of the stops from ‘Amphithéâtres’ onwards will have you in the various parts of the campus). I’m staying in a lovely place through airbnb at the moment, apparently most students and academic visitors rent flats or ‘kots’ while they are here, but I will move into the student accommodation at the University soon due to limited availability. I’ve hear ‘interesting’ things about what it’s like there but we’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst!

While I wait for some interesting developments to write about (I don’t think I’m going to touch the elephant in the room that is travelling to live in a European country four days after the UK voted to leave the EU, I’m still too sad/angry/in shock to write anything remotely sensible about it…) I’ll put a layman’s introduction to the PHATS project I’m working on here. If you’re already familiar with marine mammal pollutant science then feel free to skip it! Have a cute seal picture form the Isle of May on the house for reading this far though…

Grey seal pup
Grey seal pup

The PHATS project (Pollutants, Hormones & Adipose Tissue Science) is all about investigating how POPs impact the seals that live on our shores, focusing on how exposure to these chemicals may be affecting the seal’s ability to use their blubber stores properly. Blubber is a crucial part of any marine mammal’s anatomy, from the largest whale to the smallest seal pup. It not only keeps individuals warm in the ocean, but acts as an energy reserve so that when seals, whales or dolphins have to go without food (fasting), they don’t starve. Grey seals in the UK fast during two times of the year, when they breed in the late autumn/early winter and when they moult in the late spring/early summer.

POPs have been identified as obesogens, which are chemicals that prevent the fat tissue from responding to your body’s signals. Say you want to lose some weight, so you go on a diet and start doing more exercise. Your body should tell your fat tissue to start releasing the energy stored inside it to make up for the lower number of calories your eating. Your body uses hormones to tell the fat tissue it’s time to use up some of your fat for energy, but obesogens interfere with the way hormones talk to your fat tissue. So even though you are on a diet and doing exercise, obesogens could mean that your fat tissue can’t hear what your body is telling it to do, and you can’t utilise your fat tissue and energy reserves properly.

While other people are studying how much of an effect this may be having on human health, our study is looking at seals because marine mammals are know to have high concentrations of POPs in their fat tissue. This is because they are at the top of the food chain, and they bio-accumulate POPs because they eat lots of other animals that each contain a small amount of the chemicals inside them. POPs are especially dangerous as creatures can’t break them down or get rid of them quickly, so they persist for many years (hence the ‘POP’ name). In the past, scientists have linked POPs in marine mammals to problems with their immune systems and not being able to reproduce successfully, and we are one of many teams continuing to study how these pollutants are causing problems for marine mammal health.