(Beyond Pesticides, August 10, 2015) It is with great sadness that we report that Louis Guillette, Jr., Ph.D., died from complications of cancer treatment on Thursday, August 6. He was 62. Lou was an incredible inspiration, communicator, researcher, and teacher. And, beyond that, he was a truly good guy and beloved among students, researchers, and environmental and public health advocates.
Our understanding of biology is deeper and the world is better off because of Lou. His work revolutionized scientific thinking and showed us the real world consequences of toxic chemical contamination and exposure. The first time that Lou spoke at a Beyond Pesticides’ Forum, over two decades ago, he challenged classical toxicology and taught us, with his signature clarity, that our regulations and high dose experimentation missed the mark in assessing low dose exposure to environmental contaminants and their impact on the endocrine system –and what it all means to healthy living systems.
Lou’s dedication to bringing science to people made him such a special person. We will cherish his talk this past April in capturing the essence of his work and the importance of it to the sustainability of life. See Lou’s talk to the 33rd National Pesticide Forum, Sentinel Wildlife Species: What they are telling us about our health, (skip to time stamp: 20:31) Also, see Lou’s more indepth workshop. It was extraordinary having Lou as the kick-off keynote speaker after participants visited Lake Apopka (Florida), where Lou began researching the dramatic decline in the alligator population in 1985. As a colleague of Theo Colborn, Ph.D., his research showed that there were hormonal abnormalities in Lake Apopka alligators, finding problems with their levels of testosterone and estradiol, reproductive problems, and abnormalities of the testis and the ovary. Lou worked at the leading edge of science worldwide, disclosing that environmental contaminants were acting as hormones.
In a 1997 interview with PBS Frontline’s Fooling with Nature, Lou spoke with his signature clarity:
“Well, early on, what we were trying to do was to determine the sex of a hatchling, not only by anatomical features of these little guys, but also hormonally. And what we started to note was that the hatchling and the young juvenile males had severely depressed testosterone, the male sex steroid. Females had elevated estrogens. That is, elevated estradiol, the female estrogen.
So we started looking at the gonads and their anatomy. What we found was that the males had what appeared to be advanced spermatogenic activity. That is, the testes of these newborn and six-month old animals had already begun spermatogenesis, the making of sperm. The females, instead of having a single egg per follicle in the ovary, had multiple eggs per follicle. Completely abnormal. But, interestingly enough, a condition very similar to what we see in rodents if they’re exposed to estrogens during embryonic development.
Both abnormalities led us to start looking at the teenagers in the population, to look at the adults in the population. What I can tell you to date is that when we look at the teenagers, the abnormalities we saw in the hatchlings persist. Abnormalities in the ovary. Abnormalities in the testis. Abnormal hormone levels. The abnormal testosterone levels in the males then led us to say, “Well, could we look at something else that is testosterone-dependent?”
And that’s when we began to look at phallus or penis size. And sure enough we were able to show that males from contaminated lakes or lakes that have high levels of agricultural contaminants, industrial contaminants, they have significantly reduced phallus size, or penis size, compared to the reference lake.”
Lou described his work as follows: “The effects of contaminants on wildlife have been studied for more than 50 years, since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Our work over the last decade and a half has focused on the ability of environmental contaminants to mimic chemical messengers (hormones) and alter gene expression and functioning of the reproductive and endocrine systems. Although considered rare until a decade ago, evidence that many types of chemicals (some pesticides, industrial chemicals and personal care products), alter the signaling systems in our bodies and those of wildlife is now common. These chemicals have been widely reported as “Environmental Estrogens,” but have numerous actions beyond mimicry of estrogenic hormones.”
From 1985 to 2006, Lou was professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Florida, Gainesville. In 2006, he was awarded an Endowed Chair in Marine Genomic, and appointed Director of the Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences Center, and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina. You can listen to a recent interview that he did for Food Sleuth Radio here.
We will carry Lou’s message and advance the changes he urged. Please feel free to leave your comments to this article. We will catalog all the comments and share them with Lou’s family, which is working to set up a fund to support student research in field biology, which was so important to Lou. You may make a tax-deductible donation to Beyond Pesticides’s Fund for Independent Science, which will support future work in Lou’s name as directed by Elizabeth Guillette and the Guillette family.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.