School of Pharmacy professor researches Antartica penguins
Sompom Wanwimolruk, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, LLU School of Pharmacy, conducts field work on Ross Island in Antarctica in 1998.
A professor in the Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy is currently studying penguins found in Antarctica.
Sompom Wanwimolruk, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, has already completed and published one study, and is in the process of applying for further funding of continued study of the Adélie penguins, which live in several colonies on Ross Island in Antarctica.
Dr. Wanwimolruk is particularly interested in studying the levels of a superfamily of enzymes, known as cytochromes P450, found in the liver.
These enzymes are important for metabolizing—or breaking down—xenobiotics, such as drugs, environmental pollutants, and chemical carcinogens.
A previous paper, titled “Characterization of CYP1A enzyme in Adélie penguin liver,” was published in the journal Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology (Part C 144  148-154) and online at Elsevier’s ScienceDirect website. This was actually the third paper published by Dr. Wanwimolruk on his penguin research.
This earlier study examined 10 penguin livers obtained from adults birds who died of natural causes—most of them probably by skuas, large predatory seabirds.
Skuas, close relatives of gulls, waders, auks, and skimmers, enjoy the taste of both adult and juvenile Adélie penguins, as well as their eggs.
Cytochromes P450—otherwise known as CYP enzymes—are found in the liver and help to metabolize various toxins produced by the body or taken in from
Skuas, large seabirds, are the primary predator for the Adélie penguins.
the external environment.
“CYP enzyme levels found in the liver can be used as a biomarker for the levels of pollution to which a species has been exposed,” says Dr. Wanwimolruk. “In the past, very little attention has been given to CYP enzyme levels in wild animals.”
The Adélie penguins, in particular, are a threatened species and are being adversely affected by pollution even in such a remote place as Antarctica.
“We believe that the penguins ingest the pollutants through their primary food source, krill, as well as through the air they breathe,” Dr. Wanwimolruk points out. “Evidence from our first study suggested that the penguins are highly susceptible to the toxicity of environmental pollutants.”
Scientists are always looking for ways to measure the levels and effects of various pollutants on the earth’s inhabitants. The increase in CYP enzyme levels in the penguin livers is one more indicator of exposure to environmental contaminants.
In his follow-up study, Dr. Wanwimolruk plans to collect 90 liver samples from penguin chicks—most of them likely killed by skuas.
To assist him in collecting his samples, Dr. Wanwimolruk has enlisted the help of David Ainley, PhD, of H.T Harvey & Associates, in San Jose, California, who will physically travel to Antarctica to collect the specimens on his behalf, as well as collaborate in other aspects of the research.
Dr. Wanwimolruk hopes his research will provide new insight into the ability of the penguins, other wildlife, and even human beings to cope with dangerous and growing environmental pollution in the future.
By Larry Kidder, MA
Dr. Wanwimolruk is seeking funding for more research with the Adélie penguins.