Scientist Profiles - Dr. Jay Gandolfi
By Marti Lindsey

Photograph of Dr. Jay Gandolfi“Everything is toxic. It’s the dose that makes the poison” says Dr. Jay Gandolfi to his toxicology class. As Program Director of the Superfund Basic Research Program at The University of Arizona, he is interested in finding out exactly when the chemicals we use become poisons, how we can best live with the poisons we have created for ourselves, and how we can get rid of them.

There are 15 universities across the United States that have been awarded Superfund Basic Research grants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The research done at The University of Arizona is tailored to address problems associated with the Southwest. One focus is Arsenic, a major contaminant of drinking water and dust as a result of its presence in mine tailings throughout the region. Jay coordinates a number of projects, which work concertedly to assess the risk posed by environmental Arsenic to people living in the Southwest; to develop ways of preventing illness and environmental damage where risks are present; and to repair damage by removing the contaminant. The scientists of the Superfund are a multidisciplinary team of biomedical scientists, environmental scientists, and environmental engineers.

To determine when contaminants become toxicants Jay is looking at how the body processes Arsenic. People have known for centuries large doses of Arsenic is deadly. The Superfund is investigating the long-term effects of Arsenic found in drinking water at or near the federally accepted levels of ten parts-per-billion. Some forms of arsenic are more toxic than others and some people respond differently to Arsenic. Jay’s interest in this area is how the body metabolizes and excretes Arsenic, discovering that once inside the body Arsenic is chemically modified in a variety of ways. His research has shown the different compounds and chemical forms of Arsenic affect organs and cells through a number of ways.

In a study conducted in the Yaqui Valley in Sonora, Mexico, his team was able to show children aged seven to 11 years process Arsenic in a different way than adults. They think the reason for the difference adults and children metabolize Arsenic differently is due to a change that happens with age, in how a particular gene affects the body’s processing of Arsenic. Importantly this gene variation is correlated with a high proportion of one of the most toxic forms of Arsenic in the body. This evidence suggests children may be particularly sensitive to Arsenic. Simply knowing who is at the most risk is one of the ways we can prevent the effects of exposure to a toxin.

Of course Jay is not content to stop here, once he knows that a danger exists, his interest is in removing it. Bio-engineers working under the Superfund grant are exploring ways of removing Arsenic from the mine tailings littered around the Southwest. Knowing that certain plants can store Arsenic in their roots, the engineers are exploring ways that plants might be able to prevent Arsenic from escaping into the watershed. Once Arsenic enters the watershed it can be consumed by animals and people and become part of the food chain. Engineers in the project are searching for desert plants that will grow in the environmental conditions of the Southwest and can sequester Arsenic. They had planned to grow these plants on the mine tailings, a source of much of the Arsenic. However, plants have a symbiotic relationship with the microorganisms in the soil where they grow, and since the mine tailings contain toxic Arsenic, the soil there are few microorganisms that can live there. The challenge faced by the engineers on the project is to come up with a method to seed the ground with the right microorganisms so that the plants will survive.

A toxic contaminant is a complicated problem. To identify the problem, understand its complexities and develop a solution Dr. Jay Gandolfi must coordinate research scientists and engineers from different disciplines, working on separate, but related facets of a grander task. Working together the Superfund multidisciplinary team has a good chance of overcoming environmental and health problems, which are important in the Southwest and other parts of the world.

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: March 8, 2007
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