Meet the Expert: Dr. Ben Brammell

When Asbury University alumni return to campus for Reunion, one of the things they say goes something like, “When I came to class, I knew I wasn’t just another student to my professor. He knew me, he challenged me, and I’m better at what I do now because he knew what he was talking about.” In an ongoing Web series this fall, Asbury will feature just a few of the faculty at Asbury who are making a difference in both their subject areas and their classrooms.

In the world of higher education, there is often a sharp distinction made between schools with “teaching” faculty and schools with “research” faculty. At Asbury University, Biology Professor Dr. Ben Brammell is making such differences “statistically insignificant.”

Dr. Ben Brammell, center, offers research opportunities in the lab and local watersheds.
Dr. Ben Brammell, center, offers research opportunities in the lab and local watersheds.

Brammell’s research involves gauging the impact of aquatic environmental contaminants by measuring changes in fish communities in Kentucky’s waterways. With student participation, Brammell combines high-tech methods, such as real-time PCR to measure levels of mRNA expression in aquatic animals, with old-fashioned legwork in the creeks and streams near Asbury’s Wilmore, Ky. campus.

“It has not been until relatively recently that humans have realized that many of the chemical compounds we create have subtle but insidious effects,” Brammell said, citing effects such as the feminization of reptiles and amphibians, sex reversal in fish (males turning into females), and altered sex ratios in fish and amphibian offspring. “These effects are the result of unexpected interactions between the environmental contaminants and the endocrine (hormone) systems of these animals. Humans are not immune to these effects, and a growing body of evidence suggests decreased fertility and increases in sex-linked cancers in humans are tied to the increasing presence of these compounds in our environment.

“We utilize fish as sentinels for detecting contamination, focusing on the effects that environmental contaminants have on enzyme activity in aquatic animals.”

The changes in the fish are detected by tracking biomarkers, specific proteins known to be altered following exposure to certain classes of environmental contaminants. An elevation in one or more of the proteins is an indication of contaminant exposure. The advantage to studying the biomarkers rather than directly measuring the amount of contaminants is twofold: 1) scientists can screen for large numbers of contaminants simultaneously, and 2) it provides an indication of biological effect of the contamination. 

Lab research involves sequencing biomarker genes in different fish species.
Lab research involves sequencing biomarker genes in different fish species.

Undergraduate students have played significant roles in Brammell’s research at Asbury. One biology major spent time last spring sequencing biomarker genes in several fish species, a process that involves first cloning the gene of interest and then inserting the gene into a bacterial chromosome, allowing the transgenic bacteria to make millions of copies of the gene. The final step involves extracting and sequencing the gene, followed by comparison of the sequence with published sequences in related fish to determine if it is the correct sequence. Once the identity of the sequence is established, it is placed into an international database. Five gene sequences have been recently deposited into the database from this work, and others are in progress.

Another biology major is working on a project funded by an undergraduate research grant from the Kentucky Academy of Science that examines the effects of a widely used herbicide, atrazine, on chemical alarm cue response in fish. When fish are eaten by other fish small molecules are released from their skin that diffuse through the water, alerting other fish to the danger of predators. The student is researching whether atrazine disrupts this alarm cue response. The results of his work will provide crucial information concerning the effects of this highly controversial and widely used pesticide.

Three current or recent students have conducted a series of related studies that examine the distribution of either fish or aquatic invertebrates in local watersheds. Different species exhibit remarkably different sensitivities to environmental disturbance, so species composition provides an excellent indication of water quality.

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