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Saul Krasner Memorial Science Lecture Series
Dr. Larissa Williams, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

"The New Bedford Harbor Superfund Site: Politics, Pollution, Adaptation" 

Abstract: New Bedford Harbor, located in Massachusetts, has been polluted since the growth in population during the mid 1800s where human waste was disposed of into the estuary. Following the demise of the textile industry in the early 1900s, the city of New Bedford recruited several electrical component manufacturers, who in turn polluted the Acushnet River estuary and adjoining harbor with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The abundance and persistence of the complex mix of contaminants placed New Bedford Harbor on the Superfund National Priority List (NPL) by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983. The EPA manages the NPL as sites where known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants have occurred throughout the United States and its territories. The Superfund program is run through the US federal government to clean up the nation's uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. While most of the biotic life in New Bedford Harbor died as a result of chronic exposure to PCBs, an estuarine minnow, Fundulus heteroclitus, has persisted and is now adapted to living in the contaminated site. While the basis of adaptation for this species has been studied intensely for over 20 years, the exact mechanism(s) by which F. heteroclitus has been able to survive and thrive in such a harsh environment is not yet known. Genetic, molecular and cellular studies were conducted in order to start to understand the adaptation in this fish. Data suggest that rapid evolutionary change in F. heteroclitus has involved hundreds of loci throughout the genome, each contributing a small effect to the overall toxicant resistance phenotype.  

Biography: A Vermont native, Dr. Larissa Williams graduated with a B.A. in Biological Sciences with highest honors and a minor in Marine Science from Smith College (Massachusetts) in 2005. She attended North Carolina State University for graduate school, and received her Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology in 2010. In her Ph.D., she studied how estuarine fish adapt to chronic pollution in the environment. She is currently a NIH-NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, focusing on the effects of toxicants in molecular signaling during development in fish.